What Makes a Successful Family Dinner?

CC BY 2.0. US Department of Agriculture -- Family dinner is a goal for many people, but it doesn't have to look the same every night.

Eating together as a family cannot be described as a single consistent experience; every night is different and that's OK. It may be helpful to think of family dinners in terms of Level 1 to 4.

I have a friend with four young children and a husband who works 12-hour night and day shifts. She works outside the home, volunteers at her kids’ school, and is an active volunteer in the community. In other words, she’s a very busy woman. My friend has asked me several times how I manage to cook homemade meals and sit down to eat with my family on a regular basis, while also juggling a busy schedule.

It’s a tough question and I’ve been mulling it over since she asked. After poking around on one of my favorite family food blogs, Dinner: A Love Story, I think I’ve put my finger on the answer: Family dinner never looks exactly the same from day to day. It may sound like an idealistic Norman Rockwell-esque scene of a family sitting down to eat together, complete with candles and tablecloth, but it’s not.

There are different levels to family dinner, as blogger Jenny Rosenstrach explains in a blog post. My daily goal is to hit at least Level 2, while keeping Level 4 in mind and attempting to reach it as often as possible (but if we end up at Level 1 once in a while, that's OK too). In the meantime, I don’t beat myself up for not having it all together on a regular basis. Here’s how the levels work.

Level 1: Sitting down together

“This is where you start. Forget about the food and just focus on logistics. Get everyone sitting around the table at the same time. Try to make the event last more than six minutes,” Rosentrach advises.

If family dinners are something with which you continue to struggle, focus on simply being together at the table. Start the meal together, encouraging kids to wait for a common cue to begin. This could be saying grace or, as we do, discussing what we’re thankful for or the best part of our days.

Make sure everything is at the table to minimize jumping up and running around. Insist that the kids remain in their seats for the entire duration of the meal. Don’t worry about what you’re serving. It can be basic store-bought food, healthy pre-packaged meals, salad, takeout, or whatever. The point of Level 1 is to get used to being together at mealtime.

Level 2: Sitting down together to something homemade

“Take a step up from store-bought foods and prepare something homemade that’s simple enough to make on autopilot. Don’t feel bad about supplementing with a peanut butter sandwich if someone at the table protests. Just try to make that peanut butter sandwich with whole wheat toast and good-quality peanut butter.”

The more you cook meals from scratch, the better you’ll get at gauging how much time and effort is required. Keep it simple at this level – omelets or huevos rancheros, pasta with tomato or cream sauce, roasted meat with steamed rice, a favorite curry, pizza.

Level 3: Sitting down together to something homemade that everyone likes

Ha, the eternal challenge if you have kids at home! Rosentrach is a fan of ‘deconstructed dinners’: “The key is to pick one meal that can be broken down into its individual ingredients (aka deconstructed) and reassembled the way your diners like it.” This way, you only have to cook a single meal that is enjoyed by all. Suggestions include Mexican food (tostadas, burritos, tortilla soup), quinoa salad, pho, pasta with sausage and broccoli, noodles with peanut sauce and toppings.

While I understand the value of deconstructed dinners, I take a more hardnosed approach with my three boys. They are expected to eat what’s served and I am unsympathetic to pickiness that changes on a daily basis. I do keep their preferences in mind while cooking and don’t force excessive amounts of stuff they don’t like. I also give them small servings. For example, last night’s oven-roasted ratatouille contained ever-unpopular mushrooms; they were let off the hook after eating one mushroom, but all other vegetables – eggplant, zucchini, fennel, tomatoes – had to be eaten, along with the polenta.

Level 4: Sitting down to something homemade that everyone likes and that you can feel good about on a cosmic level

“Being able to philosophize about what’s on your table (as opposed to just, you know, getting something – anything! – on your table) is a very luxurious way to think about dinner.”

I feel best when a meal has no meat and no packaging waste, which fits in with my flexitarian/almost-vegetarian and Zero Waste leanings. So when that happens, I’ve hit a Level 4, with bonus points for lots of leftovers, a good amount of alternative protein (to keep hubby happy), and local, seasonal ingredients. Your personal goals will differ from mine in this category, but the point is to try to reach them consistently. The more you do it, the easier it gets.