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Trouble with Dinner

Trouble with Dinner

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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 when I began 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.

I love the idea of a family dinner...I simply wasn't skilled enough to pull it offAnd 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 "PhD" 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-PhD 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 Shabbat meals. I discovered that in the real world, a three-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, you see) to have the time to sit down and dine with the tots. 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.

The real saving grace has been our Shabbat mealsBut the real saving grace, literally, has been our Shabbat 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. This is not only because I make a chicken soup for the soul that I'm confident would make my late Nana proud. While only twice-weekly, I am certain that our Sabbath meals more than compensate for our helter-skelter, hurry-up-and-pass-the-rice-I'm in-a-hurry weekday dinners, because this ritual was invented by the Greatest Expert of All!

Judy Gruen’s latest award-winning book is Till We Eat Again: A Second Helping. Read more of her work on her website.
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Laura March 19, 2010

I love this! Thank you! Reply

simon bedak Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia March 18, 2010

Friday night dinners are great for our little family. When my 2yo helps make it, it encourages him to eat it. On the veggie side of things, I find if I chop things very finely and give them some kind of dinosaur name it assists too. I've never read any child rearing manuals, despite them seemingly being strategically placed around the house by my adorable wife. I too would prefer to learn about parenting as I go, and have my son and well-written bloggers like yourself teach me the odd tip as I stumble across them. Warmest regards to all from Australia Reply

Anonymous Raleigh, North Carolina March 18, 2010

:) In my family we always have dinner togther and we all help prepare so its easier. Reply

Rachel Hershberg Beit Shemesh, Israel March 16, 2010

Why the nasty tone? Totally hear your point - but why are you calling researchers who care about children's and families' welfare "smug"? How are you so sure they aren't parents themselves? Your article discusses important issues, but it's a shame your tone is so defensive. Maybe we're all on the same side more than you realize. Reply

Shalom Cohen Great Neck, NY March 16, 2010

You've done better than you think Self-proclaimed experts in academia have been providing parents with “How to nurture our children” advice for many years now. As a single father, I have come to understand that there is no exact science to raising children. Dinnertime may be a good opportunity for us to connect with our children, you should not fault yourself for not sitting with them during every meal. You have done something far more valuable than any of these experts would care to admit. Your children will grow to appreciate Kidush on Friday nights or the Shabbat meals that all of you enjoy together. Several weeks ago, my eight year old son told me that he looked forward to our Friday night dinners because of the conversations and stories we shared at the table and asked if I would come to his home to make Kidush with his family when he grows up (that is absolutely priceless). We need to understand that our children need more to hold onto than simple memories of mom and dad sitting with them at the table. Reply

Chana Jenny Weisberg Jerusalem March 16, 2010

I'm 100% with you! well, I guess I can come out of the closet too. I am also a stay-home mom who has never managed to have nightly family dinners (though, like the author, I put in several shifts in the kitchen every day talking with whoever is eating at the moment.) I also read the same research a while back, and felt guilty about it, and as though I was a failure.

SO thank you for writing this, I think your insights are 100% right on! Reply

Rachel Garber Phila, PA USA March 14, 2010

I think you missed the point While I understand it can be grating to have"experts" weighing in on all kinds of parenting stuff that contributes to moms feeling inadequate, I don't think they meant every night. The fact that the whole family sat down together for some meals is better than nothing. I've heard stories of families literally spending no time together. Kids have activities after school, dad works late, Mom is off somewhere, doing her thing, although it's usually the two former that aren't around to have dinner together. You seem to have provided a nurturing enviornment, and the whole family got together, not just for a meal, but to share Shabbat together. Some families don't even spend recreational tine together, each kid has their own TV, computer, telephone, and no one sees the other members of the family except in passing. You make the most of the short time you did have together, spending Shabbat together. A friend, who is Christian, doesn't make time for church although she takes kids to the mall. Reply

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