easy stress-free family dinners by Jenny Rosenstrach

Family dinner looks a little different in my house these days…

This past September, both of my girls abandoned me, I mean headed off to college, which means fewer loads of laundry and absurd amounts of time to think about the question that plagues parents across the world every night at 6:00: What should we do for dinner? These days, it’s just my husband and me, and since we’re both mostly working from home, usually only a few feet away from each other, that means we can talk about dinner all day long. (Heirloom beans need eight hours of soaking? No problem. Craving salmon? I’ll just drive to the fish store after work!) Needless to say, this is a far cry from the early days of parenting, when we were both working out of the house, cooking for two let’s just say notevolved palates, and the recipe instruction “marinate for at least 30 minutes” could send me into a tailspin. For those of you currently residing in that particular trench, I’m here to tell you: It all works out. Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years that might help next time you lose the broccoli battle and consider hanging up the family dinner apron forever.

1. The Food Doesn’t Really Matter
This could also be phrased as: The Most Important Thing About Family Dinner Is That It Happens. I’m a cookbook author, so we ate well in my house (and I don’t want to understate the draw of good food), but when I look back at 18 years’ worth of family meals, the thing I’m most nostalgic about is not how masterfully we could brown a pork chop or how impressive it is that my daughter can appreciate an authentic cacio e pepe. I think mostly about the four of us sitting down together night after night after night after night talking about what happened at school or what was in the headlines, or, often, nothing really at all. Knowing we had that consistent, guaranteed respite, that safe space to disconnect from the world, a place to not be “on”…that gift is the lasting legacy of family dinner. (For me, too, by the way, not just for the kids.) There are four more points I want to hit in this story, but this is really the only one that matters.

2. Exposures Exposures Exposures
I used to get so annoyed by the experts telling me this rule, but here’s the thing: It kinda proved to be true. Exposing kids to a food they reject over and over will most likely convince them to eventually try it, and maybe even like it. I’m not going to say this is easy! My second daughter ate so little as a young kid; no matter what we put in front of her, no matter how many different foods we tried, she would hardly touch a thing. But we kept serving her what the rest of us were eating, because really, what choice did we have? You know the end of the story, right? Let’s put it this way: She just texted me every dinner she wants when she’s home from college for February break and there is not a Cheerio nor chicken finger to be found among the lot.

3. No One Is Keeping Score
Family dinner is not a referendum on your self-worth. It’s easy to beat yourself up over the kids not eating a meal you labored (or didn’t labor) over. It’s easy to compare yourself to the parents whose kids seem to eat everything when yours survives exclusively on honey-flavored Teddy Grahams. It’s easy to think everyone but you has figured out how to have nightly warm-and-fuzzy family meals where everyone behaves and eats what they are served. (They haven’t! And by the way we didn’t even attempt to have a proper sit-down meal until our youngest was three years old.) No one is watching. No one is judging you. Just cross that one off the list of dinner stressors.

4. You Don’t Need a Massive Repertoire
Variety is the spice of life and all that, but let’s be honest, even the most ambitious among us don’t often have the energy to audition some exciting new dinner that calls for homemade cashew cream, three pots, one baking sheet, and a last-minute trip to a specialty market. I remember reading somewhere that if you can make just seven dinners without a recipe, your family dinner life will get much easier. I nominate pizza, pasta, quesadillas, rice and beans, a vegetable-packed omelet, and chicken cutlets. In spite of all the recipes I’ve developed through the years, those have always been my MVPs. In other words: Think simple crowd-pleasers. It’s what the people want! And when the people are happy, you’re more likely to cook for the people the next night! If this depresses the adventurous side of you, just go off on the weekend.

5. Make the Table a Pleasant Place
I think I can actually hear your eyeballs rolling. I get it. Isn’t it enough just to get everyone to the table at the same time eating the same thing? Yes, it is. (See #1.) I feel like in a lot of ways, executing family dinner was a virtuous cycle for me, i.e. the more I did it, the easier it got, the easier it got, the more likely I was to do it. That consistency also depended on the table being pleasant. To that end, I decided I wasn’t going to get mad if the girls didn’t eat what I served them (they were welcome to make themselves a peanut butter sandwich), and even though I was always tempted to discuss, say, the ACT prep class or how that summer job search was going, I did my absolute best to keep the table a nag-free zone. (That’s what the rest of the day is for!) This doesn’t mean I succeeded every night, but I like to think the effort was noble. And maybe a good reason why somehow all these years later, I still think of dinner — even with just two of us — as a little gift I can give myself every night.

What lessons have you learned along the way? Please share…

P.S. How to get your kids to talk at dinner and 9 easy family dinners we’ve loved to death.

(Photo by Chelsea Cavanaugh for Dinner: A Love Story.)