In today’s fast paced lifestyle it is very often that the first casualty of family life is family dinner. Parents working late, along with children’s extra-curricular activities may force us to overlook the very traditions that keep our families grounded in our values and connected in ways that nothing else will. Instead of sharing valuable time together around the table, we find ourselves looking to fast, convenient and many times, not-so-healthy foods that we can grab and eat on the go. It is a challenge to prioritize meals together as a family when we are all so busy, however the benefits are invaluable!
There are few things that can evoke emotion like the smells and tastes of the foods from childhood. Food is not just important to fuel our bodies; it can also fuel our soul. I can’t remember a time in my life that I wasn’t in the kitchen. The lessons that I learned there were more about love and family than about cooking! When I cook for my family I remember those special times and there are always little things that make me smile like “feeling the batter.” When I would make cornbread with my grandmother she would let me measure and add ingredients to the bowl. I would then start to mix. When I thought it was ready, she would say, “now I need to feel it.” I really believed that was part of the recipe….add cornmeal, add buttermilk, add eggs…mix, feel it. Once I could read, I was shocked to see that step was not really on the actual recipe!
Another great memory I have about learning to cook is from when I was in college. I lived in a little apartment with a big kitchen. Friends would stop by with bags of groceries and say they would be back later to eat. I would call my great-grandmother and tell her what was in each bag and she would then direct me to what we were going to make. It was a great way to stay connected to her and this is where I truly learned the art of timing! She would tell me when to start each thing and when to check on it. Her version of “feeling the batter” was to have me hold the phone down as I stirred. She would say, “it sounds too wet, add cornmeal or it sounds too dry add buttermilk.” Those are such precious memories!
For my family, times in the kitchen and around the table are treasured times and we do our best to make them a priority. When my children were students at The Duluth Montessori School, we went through many stages. In the early years, my husband was home every night and we limited extra-curricular activities to ensure that we were at the dinner table together nightly. Jeff and I would shop on the weekend and spend a couple of hours together in the kitchen on Saturday or Sunday to prep meals for the upcoming week. He and I both enjoy cooking and it gave us some wonderful time together while being productive.
When our children were 4 and 6 Jeff changed jobs. His new position required him to travel each week from Monday – Thursday or Friday. It was an adjustment for us all. Natalie, Matthew and I still had our nightly dinner together, but we were missing him at each meal. It was harder on him. He and I still did our weekly meal prep on the weekends, but then he was stuck on the road eating alone. In those early days he would call at dinnertime to check in and hear about our highs and lows of the day. The ritual of each stating the low part of our day and the high part of our day had become a special part of each nightly dinner. There were many times when there were no lows for the day, but there were always highs to be found.
As the children got older and found things that they were interested in it became harder to prioritize this traditional type of family meal. We live a good distance from the school and many of their activities were with classmates in the communities nearer school than home. This made it unrealistic to go home between school and extra-curricular activities, so I got creative! Since we have a kitchen at school, I became committed to making meals there for us to share before leaving for various practices. There were even days when I had a crockpot going in my office all day! The reality of our life made it hard for us to follow through with a conventional family dinner, but it was important, so we found ways to make it work.
Even when my children hit the teen years and everyday swim team and hockey took over our lives, we embraced the times that we were home to prepare and share meals. It is common to see the four of us together in the kitchen on these nights rocking out to our favorite tunes while we cook together. After many of these dinners we still enjoy family card night complete with silly hats and lots of laughter!
Making family dinner a priority in your own home is something that will become a treasured piece of who you are as a family. Finding creative ways to connect at dinner may take a bit more thought and effort, but in the end the payoff is priceless!
Written by Traci W. Gagnon