Excellent clinicians have to make time for wellness and family bonding. Prioritizing a family dinner at least once a week is one way to do this.
It’s Friday at 4:30 p.m. Every day this week, at least one of us has left for work before our daughters, Alanna and Lily, woke up. And every evening at least one of us has gotten home after they go to sleep. We are both in clinic and our alarms go off. “Leave for family dinner,” says the alert on our phones.
Packing up my bag for the weekend, I send Mital a text message. “You good?”
“Yep! Leaving now!” she replies
We both rush out of the hospital without having written all of our notes or even looking at the pages of emails we have in our inboxes.
Mital works a little closer to our daughters’ school, so she picks them up while I go home prep dinner. By the time Mital, Alanna, and Lily get home, I’ve taken the pizza dough, sauce, cheese, broccoli, and pre-made salad bag out of the refrigerator. The paper plates and napkins are already laid out on the table, left out by us that morning.
“Daddy!” screamed Alanna and Lily, running towards me. “Party time!”
Alanna helps me spread the sauce on the pizza, throw some cheese on it, and put it on the pizza maker. Lily and Mital empty the salad bag into a bowl and put the broccoli in the microwave to steam. Turning on some music (anything Disney princess in our home), we have a quick 10 minute dance party while the pizza cooks.
By 6 p.m., the food is ready and our entire family is sitting down together for a family dinner. Is it Norman Rockwell? Ha, nowhere close. But is it a special time for all four of us? You better believe it.
It would be easy to let them eat in front of the TV: there would be no tantrums and we could catch up on work. But we recognize the importance of the family dinner:
1.) Social Development: Discussions help to promote language skills, manners, patience, and dexterity (learning to use a fork is hard!). We also get to role model healthy interactions between adults and partners.
2.) Family Bonding: Dinner together is a special time to reinforce what is going well in children’s lives and to help manage the difficult things.
3.) Wellness and happiness: Not only do the dinners give us opportunities to create happy memories, but evidence even shows that family dinners are correlated with improved mental health. It is also a time to reinforce healthy habits.
Two stressed parents after a long day of work combined with two tired and hungry children is a recipe for disaster. It often seems impossible, but it isn’t. So how to achieve this? We have come up with some reasonable and practical strategies that have made our lives easier and our dinners more successful.
1.) Make it happen
Prioritize it: Yes, you have to finish your clinic notes, prepare that manuscript, get the car registered, do the laundry, buy a gift for the birthday party this weekend, and solve the Middle East peace crisis. But for just one night per week, you have to set aside two hours for a family dinner.
Schedule it: Start by putting the entire time needed (including an alarm to tell you to leave work) in your Outlook or Google Calendar and share it with your family.
Prepare ahead of time: Order your groceries online or directly from the local grocery store so that you don’t have to add in a two-hour trip. Schedule it for Sunday, so that you and your partner can prepare some things ahead of time, and all you have to do is heat it up on dinner night. It’s also a great way to spend a little bit of quality time with your partner!
2.) Make it successful
Be practical: Use a delivery service like HelloFresh or Blue Apron to have an entire recipe or even an entire dinner delivered. And have an easy meal that you can go-to if you are running behind, like an omelet and fruit, frozen pizza and cucumbers, or pasta with a bag of frozen veggies.
Be reasonable: This isn’t the time to be formal or to make sure your children are eating healthy – this is about family being together. So forget about the fine china and the lima bean & brussel sprout salad. Serve a meal that you know your kids will eat without complaining on paper plates.
Be physically prepared: For our children, that means making sure they aren’t too hungry (a snack 60-90 minutes before dinner will hopefully avert the hunger tantrums) and for us that means a cup of coffee on the way home from work to get the blood flowing!
Keep it brief: A five year old can hold attention for three or four minutes in ideal circumstances. During the “witching hour,” it seems more like three or four seconds. So make the dinner short and sweet and make sure to end it before they hit their limits.
3.) Make it meaningful
Name it: Have a fun and memorable title for the dinner, so that everyone can look forward to it all week. It also sends a signal that this tradition is an important one.
Have everyone pitch in: Kids love to help. Giving them a task will lengthen the quality time, occupy them, and teach them the importance of preparing a meal of their own. It can be as simple as carrying the napkins to the table or throwing trash in the garbage.
Utilize technology: Cell phones, TV, and computers are all distractors. But fun music will keep them entertained (and it will also serve as a conversation piece).
Keep the attention focused on children: There is time later (when I don’t exactly know) to discuss what happened at work with your partner. During dinner, talk to your children and get them talking. We take turns telling stories (its an amazing glimpse into their psyche). When we are getting close to the end of their ropes but we want to end on a positive note, we start singing songs (anything from the ABC’s to Brittany Spears in our house).
Relive past experiences and plan new ones: Talking about old memories (like the family trip to the beach last summer) solidifies the importance of togetherness, and planning future events (even going to a movie this weekend) keeps them excited and attentive.