Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Tips on Making Family Dinner Work, #2

Challenge: Between work schedules and kid's activities, it's just too hard to schedule family dinner.

Suggestion: Look at schedules realistically, then make a plan.
For instance: Schedule dinnertime at 7 pm, 3 nights a week (M, W, F). Schedule one weekend meal together (breakfast, lunch, dinner).
We had a lot of fights about family dinner over the years. Many arguments were started splitting hairs over when "exactly" dinner was to be served. Though I have worked full-time, part-time, and not at all during my "career" as a mom (a job in itself), I have always been in charge of scheduling dinner. I'm not always the one actually cooking it, but on weeknights, I pretty much decide what we are having and when. These days, my husband usually gets home at 6:45pm, which is great. (Yet, he still doesn't really understand that 15 minutes late, or even 5 minutes, at the end of the day can make a huge difference in moods and tempers for the rest of us.)

There was a time when his "coming home" schedule was wildly erratic. I had no idea when in the window of 6:30pm to 8pm he would be coming home. There were a lot of frayed nerves and arguing then. At some point, I just decided that dinner would be served at 7:00pm, take it or leave it. I couldn't take the "waiting" and wondering when he would get home anymore. It seemed so unfair to the kids and me. But it was also unfair to him. I was mad no matter when he got home. He always seemed "late." No one likes to be jumped on the second he or she gets home. (Unless it's with the loving cheer of "Mommy/Daddy's home," coupled with small children running into arms.)

Once I set the schedule, guess what? He changed his schedule. He wanted to be home for dinner and it was easier to do this when he knew dinner was at 7:00 pm. Not every night, of course, but many more nights he got by home by 6:45. And he knew when he should call to say he would be late; after 7:00pm would be offically late. It's obvious that once something can be put into a schedule, it can become easier to manage. Even in the crazy, work-all-the-time professions, I think that a parent can try to make a commitment to come home for dinner once or twice a week. It becomes easier if dinner is set at a particular time and can be scheduled just like any other "meeting." With a set dinner time, even the working-late parent who has an erratic schedule can have a goal to shoot for a couple of nights a week.

Weekends are also a great time to play catch-up. Try to schedule at least one weekend meal together. Some families have Sunday morning pancakes or some other big breakfast as a tradition. Or Sunday night can be a sit-down dinner night.

If the kids' schedules are the problem, you can still use the dinner time as a carrot. Teens want to have dinner together with the family, whether they act like it or not. Talk with your older kid about his or her activities and try to find 1 or 2 nights a week that can be family dinner nights. You might not be able to change track practice, but hanging out with friends can be shifted to the weekend. Your teen might appreciate the responsibility and the structure of knowing that he or she is expected home for dinner, by a certain time, a couple of times a week. If you are still in charge of the afterschool schedule for your child, cut a few activities. Your child may be relieved to have the extra breathing room. Remember, family dinner is just as important a goal as loading up on extracurriculars.

Of course, busy families have to be flexible week after week. There may be valid reasons to shift dinner time occasionally or tweak it night by night. This week might have final rehearsals for a school play or a big project at work. But excuses only go so far. There's never a perfect time to start having family dinner; you just have to get started and stick to it.

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