How to Have Family Dinner: Six Rules

(illustration by Laurie Sandell)

Rule 1: If you have a kid under 3, don’t bother.

Tending to a toddler at the table — his milk spilling, his food dropping, his inability to articulate how multidimensional your marinara is — it all takes its toll on the rest of the diners’s satisfaction, especially the cook’s. You won’t be able to concentrate on any kind of conversation or enjoy what you just spent some time preparing, let alone be able to savor your family’s only unplugged moment of the day. You will in fact, only be setting yourself up for failure, potentially triggering a spiral into dark places of self-hatred. That can be hard to recover from.

Rule 2: Push bedtime later.
My kids have always gone to bed late (since we usually get home from work between 6:30-7:00) and logistically I think it’s the most important thing you can do to make life a little easier around the table. The “7:00 Bedtime” parents will probably not be happy with my prescription of  “The 7:30 Dinner,” but if you can swing it, you can most likely give yourself a comfortable 30 minutes to drink a glass of wine, talk to the kids, and get a meal on the table. There are enough things going against you already with this whole endeavor — might as well control the clock. If your kids are starving and you can’t imagine how they will last that long — ply them with a healthy snack at 5:30.

Rule 3: The Two Out of Three Philosophy.
How do you define successful dinner? After editing the food pages of Cookie for so long, I got quite intimate with all the research. Most parents (moms, in this case) call a meal a success if:

  1. Every member of the family is accounted for and seated.
  2. There is a wholesome meal on the table.
  3. Everyone is eating the same wholesome meal.

There are other variables, yes — like if the TV is off and there are no punches thrown between siblings — but the three above are the biggies. This is what I do: If I can honestly say that I’ve hit two of these three truths, then you better believe I’m marking it down in the Successful Family Dinner column on my Good Mother Scorecard. If you find you are hitting all three truths all the time, please contact me — you are a nearly extinct breed and I’d like to conduct some kind of anthropological study on you.

Rule 4: Don’t force yourself to cook every night.
Along the same lower-your-standards lines, my friend Pilar (who was also the editor of Cookie editor and my co-author on Time For Dinner ) has her own set of rules for dinner making. Her whole philosophy is “If I Could Just Make it to Wednesday…” (later shorthanded to simply “Get to Wednesday”) and holds that if you can do your best to cook a good wholesome meal for your kids just til the middle of the week, then you are off the hook for Thursday and Friday. The point is this: We are no longer living in the same world we grew up in — no one expects you to produce a hot, made-from-scratch meal every night. But if you are one of those parents who finds it extremely satisfying to produce a hot, made-from-scratch meal for your kids, then do it when you can and let it go when you can’t.

Rule 5: Cook within your culinary comfort zone.
Hopefully you will be getting a lot of ideas from DALS that will expand your recipe repertoire, but when you’re starting out, you should cook what you’re comfortable with. Remember, the name of the game is taking out any variable you can — so really, why would you start with a quinoa pilaf that requires you to hunt down some sort of special summer spinach at the farmer’s market? Start with something you can make without a recipe. Start with an omelette. Or a hamburger or a killer sandwich…or pasta tossed with fresh tomatoes. And once you do decide to try, say, Marcella Hazan’s milk-braised pork loin (oh please please please try it!) do it on a Saturday when you don’t have all the demands of a weeknight.

Rule 6: Follow Dinner: A Love Story.
There are all kinds of reasons not to have family dinner, I know, but please listen to what I have to say (and try what I have to cook). As long as you continue to entertain the option that maybe, just maybe, you’ll sort of, kind of, maybe, try to maybe, attempt to do it someday …I’ll be happy. And so will your family.

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Love the 2 out of 3 rule – I want to use this rubric in other areas of my life… work, cleaning – etc