Family meals can be fast

Much has been written about the importance of family meals. Usually these essays assume such family meals are home-cooked (by mom, of course) family dinners, served on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 6 p.m. Since a great many families find that logistically challenging, this can become a source of stress and angst.

Fortunately, there are a lot of caveats. Much of the research on family meals is about correlation, not causation. Studies that have looked at what happens when families change the frequency of their family meals do not find that things become awesome (when they increase) or fall apart (when they decrease). Families that value sitting down together, and have the wherewithal to make that happen, tend to have a lot of other things going for them too. It’s not the 6 p.m. pot roast that’s working the magic.

Then there’s this: family meals need not be home-cooked, need not be made by mom, need not be served at 6 p.m. Monday-Thursday, and don’t have to be dinner.

And what I’ve been thinking about lately: they can also be really fast.

We sometimes have full family dinners during the week, but between activities and parental travel schedules, this isn’t a regular thing. But we do aim to do some weekend meals, even if the schedule is pretty full.

This morning, for instance, I ran from 7:15-7:50 a.m., then started the coffee and jumped in the shower. I was back in the kitchen, dressed, at 8:10. With help from my 8-year-old daughter, I scrambled eggs and started an assembly line of toast (we have a 4-slice toaster now!). She plated fruit. At 8:22 (or so…) we called everyone down and we all sat and ate family breakfast. It was less than 15 minutes — it had to be — because the big kids and I had to get ready for church to be in the car at 8:50 (my husband and the 4-year-old did soccer this AM so we could all go to the bamboo art installation at Longwood Gardens this afternoon).

Now, I know there’s something to be said for lingering over a meal but…my kids don’t linger anyway. The 4-year-old is often up and running around with 4 minutes or so. All a family meal really took is realizing that we could squeeze it in. And so we did. No pot roast necessary.

What are family meals looking like these days in your house?

Photo: Fall blooming asters. Not related to this post, but they are pretty this time of year! 

9 thoughts on “Family meals can be fast

  1. Family meals are kind of non-existent in our house so far… Our son is 19 months and he eats earlier than I can get a full meal that everyone will like on the table, so we feed him first and then we eat after he eats. It’s not ideal and a lot of dieticians/food specialists will tell you that you should eat with your toddler. But we’ve tried it and I swear it makes no difference. He’s picky regardless of whether he eats on his own (with us hanging out with him, of course) or whether we all sit down together! We do try to eat 1-2 meals together on the weekend, though. We did that twice this weekend. I grew up in a house were we all sat down together to eat at 6 pm – until people were involved in sports. Then they would eat a reheated plate when they got home from their activity. It worked for my family but my parents lived in a small town so they had a 3 minute commute home from their office so it was a little more doable for my mom to make a big dinner for everyone. We had a protein, starch and vegetable at every meal. She grew up on a farm so it wasn’t a meal unless all 3 of those components were on the plate. I look back and wonder how she did it because she did work full time. And there were 5 kids. But she made it work somehow! I don’t think I could mimic what she did, though.

    1. @Lisa – if those dieticians/food specialists want to come to your house to cook dinner, they should feel free to do so! Otherwise, I think any advice that a parent “has” to eat with a toddler or everything will fall apart is…ridiculous. My pickiest eater is no more likely to try new foods at family dinners than he is if he’s eating in front of a screen. Frankly, he’s more likely to try new foods with the screens because he isn’t paying attention or actively trying to fight it.

    2. They are kind of non-existent in our house, too. I have a 13-month-old daughter and another aspect of toddlers is that one day something is delicious, the next day it’s not, and one day they eat a lot and the next day hardly anything. My husband will eat with her sometimes but he usually eats after she goes to bed, and I only eat two meals a day earlier in the day. On the weekends they usually have breakfast together. I will cook some things for them sometimes but I get kind of fed up with being the main cook, so my husband will make something simple.

  2. Our default is to have dinner together, usually pretty late between 6:45 and 7. In actual practice we are probably all together Sunday, 2-3 days Monday-Thursday and either Friday or Saturday (with the other day being a date night). We definitely order in. My 3.5 year old sits for about 5 minutes and it wouldn’t be unusual for our 12 yo to be missing once per week for soccer practice. On the 2-4 days we don’t eat together the au pair prepares our kids’ dinner and we either go out or have a salad and cheese/crackers. Breakfast has never really been our time together, my work has me out the door by 6 am 3 days per week and I use the other mornings to exercise, plus I feel our appetites aren’t in synch in the mornings. Our little guys wake up early and hungry and our older children are really starting sleep in. Occasionally we are all together for lunch on weekends, but due to activities, this is pretty rare. Dinners work best for us at the moment.

  3. Despite the fact that we are a pretty traditional eat-dinner-together-most-nights household, I completely agree with the line of thinking that says that the supposed benefits of eating dinner are a correlation vs. causation.

    This reminds me of a talk I heard on the benefits of reading aloud to children. The speaker pointed out that children who are regularly read aloud to are less likely to commit murders as adults. But I would be VERY surprised if the reading could really be credited for such an effect!

    1. @Kristen – yep, I’m pretty sure that reading is not going to be the defining factor. I’d bet that kids who have a caring adult willing to sit with them and do just about anything for 20 minutes a day are less likely to commit murder.

  4. I once ordered one of those food boxes, where you get groceries and a recipe, thinking it would save time. Even using their “Express Dinners” option I found it was still slower than cooking what I usually make. I do really simple stuff like pasta, pizza, or salmon filets most of the time. When we get home my 5-year-old starts demanding sandwiches immediately and so he never eats dinner. Usually the bigger kids (11 and 13) eat with me and then my hsuband eats later.
    I think this mantra about Family dinner being so important is just a coincidence. You could just as well say that families where the clothes are laundered are more successful etc, but it’s not like laundry detergent makes your kids smarter.. Being able to throw together dinner is an indicator that Things are In Order, in general.

  5. I think the togetherness is really what counts, and that doesn’t have to involve fancy food at a particular time. Some of the loveliest times with my kids are when our dinner is nachos and we’re watching a movie together while eating them.

    My husband does not cook, so all food related things fall squarely on my shoulders. I will occasionally get caught up in a loop of “we need to eat better/healthier/cheaper” but then remind myself that having stress free evenings with my kids is more important that the perfect meal.

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