November 9

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

By Whitney Fleming

November 9, 2015

Child Development, health, mental health, parent smarter

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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.)

About the author 

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.

Charlie Fletcher is a writer from the Pacific Northwest who enjoys listening to podcasts, tending to her plants, and bingeing reality tv. She has a passion for social justice, workplace issues, and mental health, which you can read more about by visiting her portfolio. You can also connect with her on LinkedIn.

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  1. Love this! Makes me feel much better about not always getting to the dinner table. You’re right – it is about bonding time and if that happens elsewhere it’s all good. You sound busy with three girls – good on you! Thanks again for the post.

    1. Thanks Tracy! We decided two years ago to let our kids play club-level soccer. They absolutely love it, meaning I never have to beg them to get ready for practice or cajole them to play. It’s definitely not a lifestyle for everyone. We know that it means we sacrifice in other areas, but the joy on their faces (and my husband’s who was a life-long athlete) is priceless, so I try to make it work. I felt guilty for a long time, but my kids are pretty well rounded, so I think we are doing okay. Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment!

  2. Whitney,

    Thanks so much for easing the guilt of the un-dinner dinner! Even with just one child, it’s tough to manage a home-cooked meal every night. Making healthy choices and incorporating children into the menu planning process is crucial! My daughter started weekly grocery store visits with her dad before she could walk. I feel like it’s made a huge difference in how she approaches her selection of food. Of course, throw out some Goldfish and it’s like a piranha appeared….but we can’t win every time! 🙂 Thanks for sharing your words and wisdom with Lies About Parenting. We’re honored to have you!

    1. So honored to be here! It’s great to be on a site that is focused on lifting kids and their parents up instead of beating them down with a one-size fits all parenting model. Trust me, I make a lot of mistakes, but one of them is no longer feeling guilt about dinner time!

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