Dear Tzippora,

My wife is obsessed with the idea of family meals. At her insistence, I leave work early each day so that we can all eat dinner together as a family, which she maintains is one the foundations of strong family life. However, our nightly reality is quite different than a television commercial fantasy of a calm and contented family catching up on the day's events over a home cooked meal. The older children complain about having to interrupt their social activities just to eat dinner when they aren't even hungry, while the younger children fight, and refuse to eat whatever is served because it is too "icky". I find these dinners a nightly exercise in frustration, and cannot understand what the fuss over "family meals" is all about. Why can't the younger kids just eat early by themselves since they don't eat what we eat anyway, and the older ones eat when they want? Most evenings I wonder why I bothered coming home early at all.

Fed-Up Dad

Dear Fed-Up Dad,

Family life is rarely the calm, serene experience that is pictured in television shows and movies. The reality is messy and noisy, and sometimes overwhelming. The effort required to balance everyone's conflicting needs can make most parents feel like they are performing a high-wire circus act, and sometimes we all wonder why we bother.

We wonder why we bother arranging a family vacation when no one can agree on where to go or what to do. Why we bother eating dinner together as a family when the kids just fight and complain throughout the meal.

It would certainly be easier to just give in and abandon these structured family times. Yet your wife is right that family meals and rituals help to build a strong foundation for the family. Shabbat meals in particular provide a unique way to connect as a family that is elevated and distinct from everyday concerns.

However, even weekday meals can have a special quality provided you plan accordingly and have realistic expectations. Here are some guidelines that help make dinnertime less stressful and more conducive to family bonding:

  1. Not everybody needs to eat the same thing. A chicken dish can be prepared in two ways, one plain and one fancy, in order to appeal to different types of taste buds.
  2. A "no complaining" rule can be enforced at the table. Tell your children "We like being with you. That's why we want you here with us now, because dinnertime is family time."
  3. Use this time to talk about positive things, and share experiences that happened that day, rather than lecturing your kids about unmade beds and unfinished chores. Let your children talk as well as listen.
  4. Keep dinner simple, and don't make it too long. It is not what you eat, but rather that you share this time together.
  5. Don't make a big deal about older kids missing a family dinner now and then when something special is going on.
  6. Remember to thank your wife for her consistent and reliable kindness to your family. Thank her at the table, and encourage the kids to follow suit.

Remember, too, that as important as family meals are, it is equally important for the whole family that you occasionally share a quiet evening meal alone with your wife at a restaurant, so you can talk without interruptions.

Many times, it seems as though we aren't getting through to our children, and that our efforts won't make a difference. However, just as it is impossible to see grass growing, it is impossible to see children growing and changing as well. The practice of sharing evening rituals and family times provides a consistent opportunity to strengthen our family relationships and deepen our bonds. I hope you will find the patience to continue your practice of family meals, and not let your frustration cause you to give up.