Family Dinner, for Better and for Worse

Last weekend, I changed the candles in our candlesticks. This task hardly seems worth noting, but as I did it, I realized that it had only been a month since I had put them in. That meant that over the course of a month, we sat at the table enough to burn through entire candles, and this felt like a victory. For reference, the prior candles had lasted at least six months.

You see, at the beginning of December, we changed the way we were doing dinner in our house. Up to that point, we ate family dinners most weekend nights, but during the week, most dinners had disintegrated into the girls sitting at the counter for about 3 seconds while they scarfed down frozen burritos and I did dishes frantically at the sink. When Julia was a baby, I started feeding her at 5 and then Scott and I ate when he got home (with a 6:30pm arrival at home, there was no point in keeping a baby, and then toddler awake for that). Somehow, we kept plugging along with that schedule, even with the girls now seven and four, but this school year, evenings started to feel especially challenging and rushed. I threw together dinners for the girls, did their baths, Scott arrived during some of this, we put Margaret to bed, and then Julia started staying up later, so either Scott or I would cook us dinner while the other read to Julia some nights. Other nights, we didn’t even start cooking until she was reading in her room at 8:30, eating dinners at 9 and hopefully getting into bed by 10. We were exhausted, and I kept hearing this small, guilty voice in my head when friends would mention “dinner time,” remembering our own family dinners when I was growing up. Something had to change.

Scott and I decided that I would start to eat with the girls at 5 or 5:30, making one dinner, and he would heat it up later in the evening. We felt strongly that the girls should be having sit-down dinners, and were hoping it would help the pace of our evenings, too. And so, one night in early December, I lit the candles, put chili on the table, and had the girls come sit and eat. They protested. They whined. And I said, firmly, “We are sitting down together, and this is dinner.” Amazingly, they came. They sat. We all ate. After dinner, they each blew out a candle, and carried their plates to the counter, and then we continued with our evening.

All dinners have not been as smooth as that one. This week, for instance, the sweet potatoes were not crispy enough, and the chili was the wrong kind, with (the horror) chunky tomatoes instead of smooth sauce. It was not fair that Margaret, who had a cold, got to have a bowl of Cheerios when she rejected a meal, even though I offered Julia the same alternative and she refused, saying that Cheerios were going to be too soggy. But in general, I am loving the time to sit together and connect, and the girls seem to be, too. Some nights they help a little in the kitchen, and most nights they agree to help clear the table. All nights they ask for dessert, and most nights I say “yes.”

Last night, I felt particularly drained. I have been in that twilight zone of “am I getting a cold or not?” for the past week. My grandmother, Rena, is not doing well, and I am sad. Julia has been staying up late, and Margaret getting up early, and everyone is tired from going back to school. The girls fought from 4pm until 5pm, when I considered turning to our dear friends, Sofia and Daniel Tiger, putting dinner on the coffee table, and retreating to my room with my trashy book. Instead, I grilled some burgers, microwaved some cauliflower, warmed up a stale baguette, and lit the candles. As the girls took their places, Julia said, “I think we all got a little too hungry, and a little too grumpy.” In the light of the new, cheery yellow candles, everything looked a little more hopeful.