According to certain experts in academia, I have put my kids’ entire emotional and educational futures at risk because I haven’t made the family dinner an immutable, Norman Rockwell-esque fixture in our lives. It did not suffice for me to swap my corporate credit card for a Costco card and a minivan throughout my long tenure as a stay-at-home mom. I’ve since logged more hours in the orthodontist’s waiting room and carpool lines than President Obama has logged on Air Force One. And yet, without the stability and routine of the family dinner, some eggheads have opined, my kids may be doomed to lives of academic failure, cigarette and drug addiction, eating disorders, and in extreme cases, careers as trial lawyers.
These “experts” are smugly secure in their pronouncements because they dangle the letters “Ph.D.” after their names. I’m going to take a wild guess that these were not letters they earned while playing with Sesame Street’s Alphabet Elmo bus on the floor with toddlers, Ernie happily shouting out when it was time for Mom to toss the tassel on her Color-Me-A-Ph.D. mortarboard.
Don’t misunderstand: I love the idea of a nurturing, nourishing family dinner, night after night. I simply wasn’t skilled enough to pull it off more often than our Friday night and Saturday afternoon Sabbath meals. I discovered that in the real world, a 3-year-old needs to eat dinner at 5:00. This might be the perfect time for grandparents to pick him up and catch the early-bird special, but it’s a less-than-ideal time for a young mom who would prefer to have dinner with her husband, if she is old-fashioned enough to have one of those. Besides, I was too busy cutting up cucumbers into eyes and dotting raisins for eyebrows, to make eating vegetables fun and exciting, to have the time to sit down and dine with the tots.
Multitasking maven that I became, I also simultaneously played outfielder for the baby flinging peas and carrots from the high chair. (This worked out surprisingly well, since that baby ended up as the lead pitcher in Little League.) It would be a stretch to claim that my noshing tidbits of scrambled egg from the high chair tray was the appetizer course of our family dinner, and in any case I stopped this sorry practice when I realized that four months had passed since I had chewed any solid food.
As the kids grew older, I kept trying to foist this fixed family dinner on us all. I was determined to impose a heartwarming evening meal experience, even if it killed us. Just my luck, my kids’ formative years coincided with the pandemic of Overscheduled Child Syndrome, when these same experts insisted that kids needed expanded opportunities for personal growth through karate, art classes, fencing, and yoga. (Who was paying attention to the personal growth needs of their moms, tethered to their minivan steering wheels for years at a time?) It required great feats of logistical planning to corral everyone at the table without upsetting this artfully arranged after-school enrichment life. Between my kids’ busy schedules, a husband who worked too late, and negotiations over when I’d be able to help color in maps of the digestive system for homework, I got an F in Consistent Family Dinner Hour.
Despite this negligence, none of my kids flunked out of school, took up drugs, developed eating disorders, or became trial lawyers. Maybe this was because I worked double and triple shifts in the kitchen, hanging around to talk – or more importantly, listen to – whoever was eating at the time. But the real saving grace, literally, has been our Sabbath meals. These special meals, which I spend a good part of Fridays preparing, are often shared with guests and are part of the sacred spaces in our lives. We even dress up for them. On Friday night and Saturday, no one is running off to work, to a game, or to the store, and not only because I make a chicken soup for the soul, one that I am confident would make my late Nana proud. While only twice-weekly, I am as certain as the experts are that our Sabbath meals more than compensate for our helter-skelter, hurry-up-and-pass-the-rice-I’m in-a-hurry weekday dinners. And maybe that’s because this ritual was invented by the Greatest Expert of All!
Judy Gruen’s latest award-winning humor book is The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement. She also has two essays in the just-released anthology, Fits, Starts and Matters of the Heart: 28 True Stories of Love, Loss and Everything in Between.