One of the things I enjoy the most from Buddhist teachings involves mindfulness of our everyday tasks. It’s this practice, I believe, that helps us to cultivate meaning in our lives. Meaning matters.
Like everyone, one thing I have to do every day is eat. And like many I feed a family. Like most I am busy. But we all still have to eat. Dinner is always something I have felt a certain amount of pressure about as a mother. The message you can create about it if you aren’t careful is that if you don’t put dinner on the table and share it with everyone in the house every night then you are not creating a happy, healthy home. I’m totally going to call bullshit on that. And not because I don’t think eating as a family is important, it is important. But because for the busy family it just creates an unrealistic expectation for some people. Some days it just doesn’t happen, maybe even most days. And you know what? That is totally fine.
Dinner for me is about a couple of things. First - good food, and by good I mean healthy. Second - memories. Third - intention. I want to explain what these three things mean to me and share how I have tackled them with my family in hopes that it helps you find some value for your own meal time.
Eating is at its most basic level about feeding the body nutrients. Look, you need some things to just keep the processes going in your body. We have a pretty good idea what these things are. Regardless of anything else this is the base level reason to eat dinner - your body needs food. The healthiest food it can get. Health has turned into a commodity in a lot of ways in the last several decades. It’s marketed to us in a way that makes it a fad. And that’s cool because healthy might not mean exactly the same thing to everyone. But in broad strokes we all need similar levels of macronutrients (carbs/fat/protein) and roughly the same levels of micronutrients to keep everything running smoothly in the body. Beyond that it’s about your individual biology and your ideas of health. I’m not a doctor so I’m not going to touch the first but I am going to talk about ideas of health because that’s about mindset and perception. And I’m all about those things.
One of the first moments I had where I started to become away of the idea of different perspectives was when I was pregnant with my daughter. I selected a midwife (no haters please) and in one of my first appointments we talked about peanut butter. No joke. She wanted to know my diet and we talked about the need for protein while I was preggers and peanut butter came up. She said I needed to eat all natural peanut butter with no added sugar. I’m like cool, why would peanut butter have sugar in it anyway right?
LOL - oh how little I knew. I went to the grocery store, grabbed the brand I was familiar with and took a peek at the label.
Y’all there is sugar in peanut butter. SUGAR! I won’t throw the brand under the table but I was astounded. Why in the hell would there be sugar in peanut butter? AND they even added more sugar! WTH?! This was, I thought, a good source of protein and was about the healthiest thing you could quickly get kids to eat. I thought of all the PB&J that is consumed and was in awe at what I read on the back of that label. I mean - I ate healthy right? I thought I ate healthy. In that moment I realized there was a whole new world of what “healthy” meant.
I call this the cereal bar spectrum.
See at the time, cereal bars were supposed to be these amazingly healthy, easy to pack, quick and convenient things to eat. From the place I came from in the world they were healthy. I am not going to say ANYTHING at all about these bars - except that I was unaware at the time of what was actually in them. And having found out what is in them I would no longer call them healthy. This is the spectrum. It was the realization I had that there is ALWAYS another level to see something from. It’s the idea that when you grow in knowledge and experience that your ceiling becomes your floor...until you move up again. It’s the understanding that what is real for some, isn’t the same for others.
I know all kinds of people in my life that think cereal bars are healthy. Just like that brand of peanut butter I used to buy. And in comparison to say, fast food, then yes - it arguably might be healthy. But it is no longer healthy enough to me. But the fact remains that there is a spectrum. And this is just another item in a long list of things that are different from person to person.
Healthy to me now means whole foods. Whole foods means none processed and packaged. Basically as untouched as I can get it. So for the most part I don’t shop in the center of the grocery store. I do produce, meats/fish, and frozen. There are a few select items I buy that come in a box or bag from the center of the store. Tortilla chips, nuts, granola, and my son really like cheerios and shredded wheat. That's generally about it. That said, nothing I buy from the center of the store do I assume is going to be “healthy”. It’s mostly what I would consider snacks and snacks, in my opinion, are totally fine in moderation. Anything to an extreme is probably not a good idea. Same goes for this too.
So that’s item one. Dinner is to feed your body healthy food and my idea of healthy is whole foods.
Item two, memories. Breaking bread together is bonding, no doubt about it. How that’s done is something altogether different. Memories don't necessarily mean good or positive. Everyone has at least a few not fun memories. I was an incredibly picky eater growing up and I have some not so great memories of being at a table being talked to about my picky habits. The memory, while probably a good thing for my family to do from time to time, wasn’t fun. You will never enjoy every meal. Not every talk around the dinner table is going to be full of joy and laughter, nor should it be. But I think mostly the goal should be for dinner to be relaxing and enjoyable. Or at least, when you read the research about it, that’s the takeaway. What makes family dinner a positive influence in the kids lives is when it is relaxing and enjoyable. When it’s bonding and relationship building.
So what if you can’t do that? What if someone works second shift? Or your teen has a job? Or your special needs child has therapy? Then what do you do? Is it relaxing and enjoyable? Hell can you even get everyone to the table at the same time?
Does that mean your children are doomed to have some tragic scar because you weren’t able to create magical, wholesome meals at the dinner table at 6pm every night?
Again - totally calling bullshit. Remember the goal is to create memories. Positive ones ideally. Something you did that you can look back on fondly more often than not. I’d be willing to bet there are some folks reading this right now that had sit down dinner every night and it was NOT a positive experience. It was possibly filled with anxiety and irritation. Nothing about getting people to feel anxiety and irritation on a consistent basis because of a rule and standard is going to have any positive pay-off. Like man, your ROI is off. You aren’t getting out of it what you put in. Don’t do it!
If what you are doing can be unhelpful depending on how you do it then what you are doing really doesn’t matter at all. Focus on what you are really trying to get to - in this case I would say positive relationship time with family. The dinner table is not the only place that can happen. I read a book once (The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler) that shared how, because of their schedule, one family shared breakfast together; not dinner.
In my case it is just simply not happening regularly anymore. I have two special needs children and a teen. My teen is doing things. She’s involved in the Civil Air Patrol, she’s on the honor roll, she’s starting to earn some money, she’s not always able to eat at the same time as everyone else. My partner’s schedule also prevents him from joining us at the table at the same time every day. Therapy schedules and simply the needs of my special needs kids don’t always make sitting down together viable. Add all that together plus my schedule and we don’t sit down during the week together very often. And when we did try to force it it was almost never an enjoyable experience. Everyone was just so stressed and irritated. Sometimes, it’s just not worth it.
But - we are able to enjoy our dinner times more on the weekend. And we have a nice ritual of going out to eat at special places. Does it happen often? No, but regularly enough that I think the kids will remember it. And when we do it’s enjoyable and positive. Not to mention that we can do things together that have nothing to do with eating that fit the bill of creating that family time and giving us time to talk together. Sometimes it happens not all together but individually - and for us that makes a difference because the needs of the people in our family are HUGELY different.
In short my opinion has become that if we can’t sit down together without stress and enjoy it that it simply isn’t worth it to do dinner together.
Which leads me to point number three, intention. If you want to sit down and have dinner together with your family you should do it with the right intention. That means wanting to enjoy each other and good food. It’s about making it fun, relaxing and nutritious. To me if you aren’t setting it up for that then honestly you are just wasting your time. Don’t lose your purpose trying to get the rules right. Especially rules written by someone else that doesn’t know a thing about your life. Don’t agonize over whether or not you are able to get it done every night. Find the way it works to have dinner together and then supplement the rest with other activities. Remember your purpose in doing it in the first place. I just get so upset when people (myself included) feel GUILT, of all things, when we can’t check something off a list even when in doing it, we completely miss the point of what we were trying to do in the first place! STOP man! You’re doing a good job even if you NEVER get dinner on the table with your family on a regular basis but you still find a way to spend quality (not quantity) time with everyone. Relax, enjoy. There’s no right way.
To that end let me share a little bit about what dinner looks like in my house and hopefully get your creative brain thinking about ways that you can make “dinner” work in your family.
So first - we all have crazy schedules. During the week actually sitting down and all eating at the table happens pretty rarely. Often it is just me and my son, or me and my daughter (depending on the day of the week and therapy schedules). I used to really worry about this; especially since I know my daughter enjoys sitting down for a family meal, but it just doesn’t always happen. So I focused on these three things above.
I know I want the time we do sit down to be relaxing. That includes being relaxing for me. So I’ve worked on ways to simplify my cooking process. I know that it being a positive experience is more important to me than it being forced at the table every day. And, perhaps most importantly, I know I want the food we are eating to be healthy. I think a lot of people skip on this last one in order to be able to sit down and eat. I just don’t feel comfortable with that. I’d rather we all eat at different times something really good then pick up or order out something that isn’t as good for our bodies. There’s no judgement in this, healthy is a spectrum, but to me it is important.
The solution that we have created is one that looks like this. Mon - Friday cooking dinner that everyone can easily eat in different locations of the house or at different times. Sit down dinner Sat and Sun either at home or at a restaurant together. It’s relaxed, intentional, and healthy. We prepare about 80% of our meals in the home at least semi homemade. And my partner is a great cook so we don’t have any issue splitting the cooking responsibility in the home and he is better at it than I am anyway - LOL.
Cooking dinner has been a real learning experience for me. Like many Americans I don’t really come from a cooking culture. I mean obviously my family made dinner every night, but it was boxed and/or prepared meals. So I didn’t know much about cooking when I started my own family. After my first kid I knew it was important though and really want to learn more about how to do it.
Slowly I figured some things out. And honestly I’m not too bad now. This is in part to finding great stuff online, eating amazing food at incredible restaurants, having foodie friends that helped me learn what incredible food tastes like, and a partner that does come from a cooking culture who has been able to share some skills.
The hardest thing about dinner for me was always shopping and deciding what to eat. We’ve made a HUGE shift on this by working with dinner delivery services. We’ve tried several but by far our favorite is Gobble. We use them now at least three times a week and I love them so much I’ve become an affiliate (check out the link below). If you have ever been interested in trying one of these places try this one. AMAZING. I love them - and if you have questions about them drop a comment. Happy to explain more.
So with a dinner delivery kit, no pressure to make sure everyone is able to eat at the same time, and other ways to fill in the gap for family time, we have put together a wonderful meal time routine. One that works for everyone in the house, helps us eat healthy, and makes our time together positive and memorable. What more could you ask for?
Take some time to consider this guys. I’m a busy mom. I really understand how hard it can be to live up to the unrealistic expectations we set on ourselves. It’s possible to do things differently and still achieve the same result. Find ways to make it work for you, not put yourself under more pressure. Try a meal kit (seriously Gobble), look for other ways to spend time together, focus on quality, not quantity (this goes for what you are actually putting in your body too) and remember your reasons in the first place.
Don’t forget y’all,
If you are interested in trying out a meal delivery service I HUGELY recommend Gobble. They have super fast, incredibly tasty, diverse menus. Each meal goes together in less than 20 minutes and the quality has been amazing. This is so helpful for the busy family. And your kids can help! :) Full disclosure I am part of Gobble's affiliate program so it does benefit me for you to use this link. Got questions? Send 'em on over. No questions? Check them out here - https://gobble.sjv.io/Ax9yj
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