Wednesday, October 7, 2009

eat, talk, connect

A recent article in the New York Times stirred an issue for me that I've been mulling over. It's on fitting "family dinners" into our modern lives called the "Guilt-trip casserole." (Dinner Together has some nice insights on the same article on a recent post.)
Life is hectic these days for many families. The NYT article interviews families in different circumstances about how they can't find time for "family dinner" and how guilty they feel. The article seems to assuage that guilt by saying, don't worry, spending some quality time with your kids in the car eating Sonic is just as good. Another mom finds meals to be another "chore" that takes a toll so her daughters microwave something and eat it in their bedrooms in front of the TV. I'm not saying don't do that, or believe that the kids will be anything but wonderful people, but there is intrinsic value in sitting around a table enjoying a meal. Nutrition improves, some studies suggest less weight gain and disordered eating... I think the article is too black and white, missing the nuance. With my work with families, I try to help parents let go of the guilt and anxiety, and problem solve so they can enjoy eating with their kids and connecting. Dakota County has a nice program right now called Eat, Talk, Connect, that is trying to help families come together.

Not doing family meals takes a toll too
I remember as a physician seeing so many moms who were so sad. (My nurse used to ask me what I "did to them" as they often left my office in tears.) They struggled to do what they thought was best for their kids and their families. Many asked for or ended up on anti-depressants and in counseling, and struggled with weight gain and yo-yo dieting. The typical day would go like this: get up at 5, do laundry, pack lunches, get ready for work. Get kids up and ready for bus at 7, go to work. Eat candy bars at desk, office cake and Lean Cuisine for lunch. (No time for breakfast.) Leave work at 4:30, pick up three kids. Eat taco bell in car at 5, Carly off to ballet, Jake to hockey, Brian to football (enter any sport or instrument here.) Get home at 7:30, eat snacks/ice-cream/cereal/cookies in front of TV, kids do homework, in bed by 10. This was typical of many of the moms I saw, and it made me sad.

As a mother of a four year old, I don't know the pressures of after school activities, but somehow I was lucky to have family dinner at least 6 nights a week while doing piano, musicals, soccer... Of course, my mom could let us play outside unsupervised (remember those days?) and didn't "play" with us or do crafts etc. the same way many of today's moms do.
Perhaps we all need to slow down a little. My friend J. says each of her girls gets to pick one activity a season. She left her full-time job for some free-lancing work and cuts major corners to make it financially.
I try to only schedule one evening client or workshop a week. I cook double batches and have the leftovers for lunch or dinner. I usually pack up M's lunches while we are finishing dinner (scoop the stir-fry into a measuring cup to nuke in the morning and throw in a Thermos...)

here are a few other thoughts:
1) limit each child to one activity per semester
2) ANY meal counts, breakfast, dinner, even an after-school sit-down snack where you sit with a cup of tea with your child and visit (I remember these chats well with my mother, starting in middle school)
3) take-out or frozen pizza can be part of a nutritious meal, just sit together and eat it. (maybe with milk and peas or applesauce or fruit)
4) try to turn off the TV. Tune in to each other, and your tummy. Are you full, or still hungry?
5) one loving family member eating with a child is a family meal
6) can you make time for breakfast together?
7) play with dinner timing, Maybe an extra snack after school means you can eat together at 7
8) tuna sandwiches or breakfast for dinner is a quick and easy way to get a meal on the table
9) have Dad be responsible for dinner twice a week, or the older kids. Grilled cheese counts.
(Or whatever works for the sharing of work in your partnership)
10) don't forget how much parents matter to kids. Probably more than violin practice that they don't like anyway...

This is long and rambling, but this issue is a tough one, especially for working women who still do 80% of the cooking. It's about more than meals. It's the changing roles in families, it's a loss of family support systems, it's longer commutes, overly-scheduled kids, loss of cooking skills...
How do you get meals on the table and balance it all!? Do you feel guilty? Inspired to try any of the tips above?

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