Families revive the art of eating together, sharing conversation and home-cooked meals.
By Maryann Minck
September is upon us and, by now, we’re scrolling through the photos on our smartphones, recalling beach days and barbecues, the art festivals and Music in the Park, and wondering how another picture-perfect Laguna Beach summer passed so quickly.
And just like that, it’s back to the grind: Drop off the kids, pick them up, soccer practice, school supplies, packing lunches, weeknight meals. That’s right, weeknight meals. Those words have the power to send shivers up even the most organized and well-put-together parent’s spine. I am a private chef, which means I plan and execute dinners for a living and, yet, the thought of planning meaningful weeknight family dinners gives even me the butterflies.
It seems like it was somehow easier before Facebook, tablet computers and smartphones. While maybe not as perfect as depicted in 1950s TV shows, it seems like it was easier to get and keep each other’s attention, especially at dinnertime, without the technological distractions. Take it from Robert Leedom, a lifelong Laguna Beach resident and father of three grown children—Maya White, Aidan Leedom and Kieran Leedom—who recalls a time when dinner brought the family together around the table.
“Back in the [1980s] … when my wife Carrie and I were raising our three kids, we did it together, and we had fun with it,” Robert says. “We believed that we were raising these little people and we had the power to expand their interest in food, music, the world … and so we took a lot of pride in making meals together. Not just dinner, but breakfast and lunch when it was possible. Packing interesting lunches for the kids, baking fresh muffins for breakfast on Sunday—it all seemed like fun to us, and our kids really enjoyed eating together. Carrie and I always made it a priority.”
While Carrie passed away more than 20 years ago, Robert, who works as a local Berkshire Hathaway real estate broker, still makes time to meet his kids for meals at least once a week. And Maya now cooks for her husband, dad and brothers on holidays, when they all reminisce about the vivid memories their family made, surrounding meals together.
The truth is, things haven’t really changed that much. Every parent wants to optimize their child’s day, get their own work done and come home to enjoy a delicious family meal together. But in this busy world, sometimes it’s all we can do to grab takeout and get home before the kids melt down. Sometimes (read: lots of times), after a very long and hard work day, we have to feed the kids at 6 p.m., hustle through homework, bath time and bedtime routines, and shuffle our tired feet to the kitchen (by this time it’s after 8) to pick over our cold fish tacos or microwave our floppy pizza. It happens, but deep down, we want to do better. And bringing back the lost art of family dinners will do wonders in terms of feeling connected again.
Here, local families share their tips for getting everyone to the table for some quality time and tasty dinners this fall and beyond, which, studies show, imparts lasting benefits for all involved.
MORE THAN JUST A MEAL
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan once said, “All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” And he had a point. In fact, some studies show that grades, family communication, vegetable consumption and psychological health increase—and the chance of childhood obesity decreases—in families that have regular weeknight meals at home. That means sitting down together with no cellphones, no iPads, no TV, no newspapers; just good old-fashioned conversation and a home-cooked meal. What’s more, the dinner table could very well be considered the heart of the home, and a safe place for kids to talk with their parents about the most mundane (“Guess what I learned to spell today?”) to the most critical (“So-and-so is bullying me, and I don’t know how to stick up for myself”).
In addition to the obvious health benefits of homemade meals—better nutrition and encouraging healthy eating habits—what if the dinner table had the power to keep the family together? Imagine that, even with a crazy day at work or school, the family knows that at 6 p.m. they’ll be gathered in the dining room, eating and giggling and putting a cap on the day together, no matter what happened in the 10 hours before. Whether it was the best day in the history of all days, or the worst day ever, they end it together, as a family.
That’s the norm, at least a few days a week, for Laguna Beach resident Jennifer Noonan, a mother of three (Harper, 20 months; Spencer, 4; and Tyler, 9), who has a strategy for juggling the family’s busy schedule with kids running in three different directions—Tyler is on a traveling baseball team and her husband operates his own business in the home-building industry.
“I determine when we will have family dinners for the week every Sunday night,” Jennifer says. “I look at my husband’s calendar and the kids’ activity schedule and figure out when. Every week is different.” For the Noonan family, flexibility is key to the family dinner puzzle. But for Jennifer, and so many local moms, the benefits of the family dinner far outweigh the time and trouble it takes to plan for the meal.
“I believe having a consistent family sit-down dinner is critical to keeping a close-knit family,” Jennifer says. “On average, we sit down as a family three days a week for family dinners. … [This] gives everyone the opportunity to sit down and focus on one another and share stories about their day without the disruption of TV, phones and craziness of family life. Not to mention, it is also a reminder of manners and the importance of them.”
Jennifer also gets the family involved in deciding what she makes for dinner. “I especially enjoy cooking on these nights because the family buys in to what I am preparing,” she shares. “I ask the boys what they want in advance, then I will cook [it] most of the time. Whether it is a pasta meal [that] Spencer and Tyler agreed on, tacos or barbecue, everyone knows what is for dinner and they are excited. [And] I always have a homemade dessert for the ones who eat their dinner.”
If picky eaters are an issue in your home, Laguna Beach-based registered dietitian Melanie Silverman suggests instating what she calls “the one-bite rule” at your dinner table. Exactly as it sounds, the rule gets everyone at the table—adults and kids alike—to take at least one bite of whatever mom or dad is serving for dinner that night. Johnny thinks the asparagus looks gross? Dad doesn’t like meatloaf? In a show of good sportsmanship, they are obliged to take one bite of each to show appreciation for the dinner that mom worked hard to make from scratch. Negative comments are prohibited and positive feedback is encouraged.
“It tends to level the playing field,” says Silverman, who provides adult and child nutrition counseling through her business, Feeding Philosophies. “… [It] establishes clear expectations for everyone at the table. And, if they love it, they can surely share their sentiments.”
Pom Pikultong, busy single mom, chef and owner of Laguna Beach’s own Thai Bros., knows all too well the need for family time around the dinner table. “Working six nights a week at the restaurant forces me to plan everything for my kids in advance,” Pom says. “My sister and brother-in-law and 3-year-old nephew live with me and my kids, so they help get dinner on the table when I’m not there. Friday evening is my only night off, so we cook a big dinner with many options and everyone helps themselves around the table.” Buffet style works for this tight-knit family and could be a great option for a larger family with lots of different tastes and age groups.
For some time-crunched families, a tag-team approach may be the answer. If mom’s job keeps her late, it may make sense to prep dinner in advance so the other parent can get it in the pan to start cooking and have it served by the time mom gets home.
Although it may be difficult at first to carve out time to plan and prepare family dinners, the benefits are clearly worth it. For a few minutes spent at the end of the weekend, mapping out meals for the week ahead, we can actually make an impact on our family’s health and happiness. Even if it may sometimes be just a roasted chicken from the grocery store and some quick-sauteed zucchini, let’s pledge as a community to bring back the family dinner this fall. Let’s start with one night a week, and build from there.