Last week, I published a piece in the New York Times about family dinner. More precisely, the piece is about how we don’t have a traditional family dinner in our house–and never really have, in large part because of my husband’s work schedule, but also because of my kids’ activities.
The comments are abundant and enlightening–and still going, so please add your voice if you’re inclined. Many readers agree with me, many criticize the hell that they believe is my family life, and many just debate our decision to let our daughter play competitive sports. The piece was linked in the Times Dining Section, on Food52, and tweeted by lots of terrific people. The conversation is fascinating, so if you’ve found your way here because of the piece, thank you for engaging, and welcome! Please have a look around, check out our book, and come back often for discussions, ideas, recipes about the many ways that families learn–and realearn–to eat over the years they spend together.
I know, the piece is ironic, given the fact of this blog. But, nothing I’ve written here in the last few years is untrue, or even half true. We all love to eat. We cook a lot. We shop together. We eat a lot. The kids fantasize about the perfect burger or homemade pizza. We just don’t have dinner together on weeknights.
I made the decision to tell this part of our family food story because at reading after reading for Cassoulet, we found parents had tremendous guilt surrounding family dinner, and how they could and couldn’t get it on the table. At more than one reading, when I mentioned my hobbit-feeding strategy, people remarked to me afterwards, “Thank you, now I don’t feel so alone.” So I had to believe that I was not the only one who didn’t have her family home together at the dinner hour. And when I spoke with my friends and their children, a lot of them confessed they ate in stages, or in shifts, or however they could manage. And the reasons were not just sports but tutoring, work schedules, business trips, meetings, volunteer duties–the whole range of pressures that are brought to bear on contemporary family life. Interestingly, I found that many kids also believed that sitting down to family dinner meant sitting down with whomever happened to be home at the same time.
I think a lot of us are not completely honest about who is sitting down to eat when. If one parent and one child sit down, when the other parent is away on business or at a late meeting–that’s not family dinner. If the high schooler misses dinner because she’s out late at an SAT-prep course, or yearbook layout session, well, that’s not family dinner, either. I, of all people, am certainly not judging. I’m just saying.
No one in our house eats alone. Two kids eat together in the presence of one parent, or 1 kid eats with 1 parent, or 2 parents have a late night meal. I’m with one or two kids nearly every day as they eat. And we talk–about the food, their day, a book, a movie, Minecraft…whatever. But the gathering of the clan, the circling at meals, as one commenter aptly and poetically put it, happens only and regularly on (most) weekends. Certainly, part-of-the-family-dinner is better than a kid flying solo with a hot pocket. But it’s not the same as the harmony and–sometimes agony–of the full family, gathering at one time, in one place. That’s a different social experience. It can be joyous, symphonic event, but it can also be a chaotic pain in the ass.
Underlying all the talk surrounding my confession and the solution we’ve worked out are two assumptions about food and family that are worth taking stating explicitly: 1) that the family dinner is a crucial structuring principle of family life and 2) the family dinner is where kids learn to eat. (There’s also an assumption about the evils of competitive sports, but that’s for another day, another place.)
Neither of these assumptions are necessarily true for all families at all times. A family meal can structure family life, but it doesn’t have to be dinner, and it’s certainly not the only structuring principle of family life. There are other meals (we have one lunch a week together, and others have breakfast or cocktail hour); there are hikes; trips to the farmer’s market; long walks to the park; bike rides; camping–whatever your family loves. Conversations can happen casually, after a movie together, or around a fire in the winter or firepit in the summer. It really doesn’t matter how your family comes together, as long as it does on some kind of regular basis. I think it’s nice if food is involved, but food is not the only way to strengthen family social bonds and communicate. It’s just a convenient one.
And as far as teaching kids to eat goes, well, we have a book and a blog about all the different ways that can happen, both around family dinner and not. This is a non-issue for our family. Our kids are learning to eat even though the two of us don’t sit down with the two of them every night. We’ve had plenty of opportunity to eat, to cook together, to try new food, to write up menus, to shop at markets and discover new ingredients and return to our favorites. As long as I cook, the kids are learning to eat, and even my mother will vouch for the fact that my kids eat much, much better than I ever did as a kid–and we had family breakfast and family dinner for many years before my own high school schedule had me out of the house at dinner time. Honestly, I hated food and ate very little of it when I was in grammar school. This had nothing to do with the kind of cook my mother was (a good one) or the place family meals held in our family (in high regard).
These beliefs–that there’s more than one way to feed your family, that we find our way to the table in many ways, and that family food reflects the full range of human experience, for better and worse–were the generating principles for The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage, which was originally titled after this blog, “Learning to Eat.” Over and over, this spring, and in this space more generally, Caroline and I have been saying that 1) There is no single right way to feed your family and 2) A sustainable family food culture involves more than serving sustainable food. A sustainable family food culture also means more than getting meals on the table quickly. Fast food (fast, home-cooked meals) aren’t enough, either. Sometimes, you have to think beyond what you’re serving. Sometimes, it’s not about what, but about how and why and to whom you serve your family food. These things matter just as much as any food rules. You have to learn to feed your family food that won’t kill them, sure, but also to get food on the table in ways that aren’t going to kill you, or make you want to kill them. And you have to do this for years.
Families come to the table in many different ways. We learn to eat in many ways. My ways may not be yours, but we need to keep talking about all of them.