The Family Dinner Table Could Be Overrated (Part 2)
By: Amber Kinser
I ended up writing this month about food because I’ve been thinking about how different stages in the life of my family have resulted in changing patterns of eating, especially around dinnertime. I have talked some in my published writing about my ambivalent feelings regarding the family dinner, about how I grew up with a mother who worked full time like my father did, and who also put much effort into preparing the evening meal, and typically a lavish one on Sundays. She may have been able to do this fairly routinely because part of the routine was that my father, a firefighter, was on duty every third night at the firehouse. And on these nights we had what we called “whatever,” which meant leftovers, or a bowl of cereal, or something equally simple to prepare and clean up and, importantly, reprieve for mom. I remember this pattern of home-cooked meals five nights a week as characterizing a large part of my years at home. And I have ambivalent feelings about them. On one hand, I did so love my mother’s cooking and the plenitude of it, which she managed to offer up no matter our finances or her time constraints. On the other hand, my father had strict rules about dinner table behavior which were difficult to abide by among the six of us. So dinner was stressful and the children were, for the most part, to be seen and not heard.
I decided to do my own family dinners differently and did for many years and in two marriages. But as I began to get really grounded in my career, I found them more and more difficult to pull off. Also I found that my new partner, having done few family-style dinners as a kid and fewer still with his own kids (who are now grown), found them forced and uncomfortable, particularly given the awkwardness inherent in “blending” families (the quotes are there because changed family configurations seldom blend together smoothly, like so many cake ingredients, so the term is misleading). A few years passed and my daughter entered high school so some of the associated angst of those years made their way to the table, as did my and my partner’s dual career stresses. Plus, the age differences between my children and between all of us (at this writing we are 13, 19, 47, and 69) presented us with challenges that I could not effectively wrestle. My partner’s cooking is simpler, made with less culinary experience, and not … vegetable-enhanced, shall we say, nor does he have any commitment to the family table proper. So it has been me who has wanted the sit-down meal and I’ve not been feelin’ it for the past few years. I found I was working myself to a frazzle to no good end that I could pinpoint. I never do clean up; my partner sees to that, but even just the meal prep has become too much, only to result in stilted table conversation, the very knot from my childhood I was trying to untie.
So now we do things differently and after about a year and half of doing it this way I’m finally beginning to feel like it’s a good thing for us. Most typically we have “shows” that we watch, television dramas from the current season that we watch on “Video On Demand” or from previous seasons that are out now on DVD. I make dinner or, more frequently now, my partner does (with me occasionally throwing in those vegetable enhancements), we each serve up our plate, and we say “What do you want to watch?”
I know that many mothers are trying their best do care for their families, sometimes with help and sometimes on their own. And I just want to say that the mother who settles on a particular meal plan at a particular time in her own or her family’s evolution based largely or even solely on what will keep her from losing her mind IS doing something good and wholesome for herself and her family.