5 Ways To Bond Beyond the Dinner Table (And End Family Dinner Guilt)

Do you have trouble getting a family dinner onto the table every night?

You’re not alone.

Last night each of my three daughters’ enjoyed a home cooked meal of spaghetti and meatballs with a side of cantaloupe. While they ate, I helped with their homework, signed papers and found out my twins need a plain sheet, towel and headband to participate in Nomad day later in the week.

The gossip continued. A boy fell off the monkey bars, Jessie got a cell phone for her 11th birthday, and there was a rumor Lady Gaga died (she didn’t).

Sounds like a great family dinner, right?

It was.

In my minivan.

We walked through our front door at 8 pm that night.

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My dinner table never saw a crumb.

There are a million studies that show family dinner time is important. It fosters communication. It keeps kids off drugs and alcohol. It ensures the kids do better in school.

Sit-down dinners are impossible — in our home.

I have three tween-ish daughters. Each one has a sport and one activity of their choice.

For the family, that means six commitments per week, not counting games or special events.

It doesn’t feel over-scheduled, but it does feel like the pesky problem of feeding my children gets in the way.

Dinner table dinners are valuable. Don’t get me wrong. My perfect parenting dream world involves a sit-down, home-cooked meal with family every night.

Then I wake up.

But, just because we eat at separate times does not a hooligan make.

Today’s dual-income families (work much?) don’t need the added pressure of dinner table failure, set on us by parenting “experts.”

Dig into all that research, and you’ll see that the dinner table isn’t about a sit-down meal.

It’s about communication and quality time.

That’s harder than it sounds. Finding quality family time is a challenge with kids of a certain age, but we do it.

Here are five ways our family bonds beyond the dinner table:

1.  Maximize the Minivan

Some of the best conversations I have with my girls are in the car driving to and fro various activities, but I had to institute some road rules to make it happen.

We disconnect to connect, which means no movies, iPads or headphones in the car during the week or on short trips.

Instead, I use prompts to keep the conversation going.

2. Parent in the Gaps

No Time For Family Dinners

It’s silly to run home for 30 minutes before turning around to pick someone up, so I plan “gap outings” for whoever is with me.

We bond over fro-yo, talk about books at the library, grab a hot chocolate, or visit whatever is nearby. It's often the only one-on-one time I get with my busy brood.

3. Bond Over Breakfast

Sometimes the morning is the only time we are all under one roof, so we often get up a few minutes earlier to spend extra time together.

It might involve frozen waffles, juice boxes and hair standing on end, but we make it happen.

4. Keep the Bedtime Rituals (At Every Age)

I decided long ago that our house runs much better when everyone (including Big Mama) gets their sleep, so eating dinner at 8 p.m. is not an option.

Instead, on busy nights, I often send the kids off to their rooms a few minutes earlier, and their dad and I spend some time with each kid before they go to sleep. Sometimes that involves chatting, but sometimes it’s just a snuggle or sharing some reading time.

5. Gab About Groceries

Just because we don’t eat dinner together each night does not mean I don’t care what my kids put in their mouths. Involving kids in meal planning is the number one way to ensure children make better food choices. At least one of my daughters comes to the grocery store with me each week, and everyone participates in deciding dinners. We may eat out of our thermoses instead of on fine china, but it all tastes the same.

At the end of a busy day, what matters is connecting with your kids.

No dinner table required.

(Even if it is desired.)

Whitney Fleming

Whitney is a freelance writer and blogger at Playdates on Fridays (www.playdatesonfridays.com), where she dishes about parenting, relationships and w(h)ine. You can find her on Facebook or Twitter.

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