Family Style: Doing Dinner Differently

Family Style

It began with bad timing. I wasn’t looking for a dinner revolution any more than Lucy was looking for Narnia when she hid in that wardrobe. But Lucy and I, we both accidentally discovered magic.

This was a brinner night, a favorite in our house.

The bigs had just gotten into the swing of public school and I was trying to be more intentional with our time together in the evenings, especially dinner. I was failing: we were running late and only the biscuits were done. I normally plated everything myself, but I wasn’t about to let biscuits get cold on a plate because that is just a hateful thing to do. I took out my hand-me-down, much-loved sunflower Fiesta serving bowl, wrapped those babies up, and let them hang out on the dining room table while everything else cooked. I saw its matching platter and pitcher and thought to myself, why not? The bowl was already on the table. We usually only served dinner family style on holidays, but on a whim, I pulled a couple more plates and platters down. It seemed funny to me, to bring out “special” dinnerware for eggs, biscuits, turkey bacon and orange juice, but I’m not opposed to funny.

My nine-year-old and four-year-old ran into the kitchen, saw everything, and asked to help. I let them set the table with plates and flatware, and handed off warm platters as each was ready. They were so excited, and I was amused, but I still had no clue that we were actually on to something.

The 14-year-old lumbered out of his room and raised a brow at the set table with food all in the middle. “What’s all this? What’s in there?” I shrugged. “Just brinner stuff. I thought we’d try it like this.”

Try it we did, and every single night since, save for the occasional weekend meal, this is how we eat. Why did an accident become a habit? Well, let me tell you…

Time slowed down.

Family StyleI’m going to address two issues we had every night at dinner, both concerning time. First issue: no matter how hard I tried, I was never at the table with everyone else. Whether someone’s plate needed adjusting, we forgot condiments, drinks, whatever, I was always running around to get it. Since I made the plates, if I left something off, I felt like I needed to grab or correct it. I would insist they go ahead and eat, because the food was ready, they’re kids, they’re hungry. This lead to me eating warm-ish food while the rest of my family sat, completely or at least mostly finished with their food, ready to bolt, and waiting on me. Not exactly an environment that fostered lively conversations as my kids’ knees were literally bouncing at the chance to be dismissed. Second issue: the teenager. He inhales food, so take everything I said above and make it double time. It was hard to even pin him down for our usual “high/low” before he was ready to be excused. He was respectful, but checked out. 

I have no idea what magic happened with the meal that first night, but it never wore off. I got to sit down with everyone. Everything slowed down. We were eating at the same time temperature. No one was inhaling a pre-plated meal. No knees were bouncing.

Conversation warmed up.

I didn’t realize it until we began doing dinner this way, but we honestly weren’t at the table long enough to even get going, socially. Isn’t that the idea of family dinners? It’s not just a box to check off because it’s “good for them.” No, it’s good for them because it connects us. My family is Italian, so I know that meals should be just as much about the company as the food, but they were getting lost in the mix of our hectic evenings. That slow minute after prayer, when no food had met a plate yet, when things had to be asked for and passed around, turned out to be the perfect amount of time to get the kids talking. We were hearing stories we had never heard before. We were laughing. High/low took a back seat, because we were hearing about those best and worst parts of their day organically, and in detail. This all sounds so obvious as I write the words out, but man, we were missing it.

They tried stuff.

FINE, I had read this somewhere before and totally forgotten it, but it turns out kids are more likely to try something new when presented this way: available, but not mandatory. It worked!! The four-year-old still hates everything, but hey, he’s trying it and THEN hating it! We take victories anywhere we can find them. #blessed

The siblings were kind. Like, really.

I KNOW. It was insane. But seeing my 14-year-old help our four-year-old with plates too heavy to lift, or watching them pass on the last serving of something when just a week before it would have been a race back into the kitchen for more, made me a believer. We have almost five years between each kid, so finding their common ground can be, well, uncommon. But hello, food. They’re all so here for food.

Everyone helped.

My kitchen is not a restaurant kitchen, all hidden aside from some little rectangular hole from which to slide plates. It is not a mystery, and yet something about me plating meals seemed to make my family believe the food appeared on its own, and therefore would — yep! — disappear on its own. Don’t get me wrong; they are good, considerate kiddos. Their manners…I mean, they’ve been taught manners. Mama tried. But dinner was very often left behind. For the mysterious food fairies. They had to be reminded on the regular, until the family style meals began. I don’t know if they felt some sense of ownership for everything on the table, or maybe more sense of community, but they were clearing their things (and each others’) without being asked. I don’t question gifts from God, y’all, I just go with it.

So there you have it: my trip to Narnia. Being truthful, I hesitated to write this, because I figure you all are probably already light years ahead of me, shaking your heads. But on the off chance there’s a few of you out there like me, I leave you with a few handy tips:

  1. Put every possible thing on the table. It’s better to clean it up after than need it, not have it, and be up and down. Again.
  2. From friend and contributor Erika: In case you DO need something that isn’t on the table, assign a runner! She says her kids love taking turns being the helper, and I am absolutely stealing this one.
  3. Don’t sweat how it looks — really. My matching stuff may have been the inspiration, but our table is uh…eclectic most nights. Don’t sweat it, they don’t care. Because they love you and they love being with you, and because food.
  4. Don’t be intimidated by the idea of a few more dishes — it’s really minimal and very easy cleaning.
  5. Small people can help, so let ’em! They can pass out the silverware or napkins or serving utensils. They’ll be happy and you’ll have one or two fewer things to fuss with in the meantime.
  6. Enjoy that family and that warm meal and that dish carried to the sink, Mama. You deserve it.

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