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At Family Dinners, Calories Count, but Not as Much as Bonding

March 19, 2000|VICKI IOVINE

Dear Vicki: Several months ago you wrote about whether it's "considerate" for parents to take small children to restaurants. I loved your response, since my husband and I love to enjoy childless meals when we pay for a night out. But what about the 363 other days a year when we must dine together as a family at home?

We have two kids, ages 6 and 7, and getting the four of us to sit down together every night and have a civilized dinner is impossible! If it's not piano lessons, soccer practice or homework interrupting the dinner hour, it's lack of interest on the kids' part.

I've read that parenting experts believe the single most important thing we can do to raise good kids is to sit down to dinner with them. If that's the case, our family is in big trouble. What do you and your family do?


Dear Chronic: Let's see now, do you suppose those experts consider using the drive-thru with my kids at Taco Bell a "family dinner"? If not, I may be standing right beside you in the line of losers. We, too, have a very hard time sitting down as a group and breaking bread in a relaxed manner.

Let's start by listing some of the challenges facing us moms of the new millennium: First, young kids are hungry the minute they walk in the door from school. After two hours of Goldfish crackers and a gallon of Gatorade, who can really blame them for not being thrilled with the nutritious meal we try to serve sometime between 6 and 7 p.m.?

Second, preparing dinner every night can be even more thankless than scraping gum off Main Street at Disneyland: Somebody's got to do it, but no one really appreciates it. In my house, I am responsible for satisfying a husband who doesn't eat red meat, a daughter who is anemic and needs it, another daughter who by all appearances lives on water and toast, and two sons who think canned chili is haute cuisine. Notice, I don't even mention my own nutritional needs, since I seem to live on the leftovers on everyone's plate and any snacking I do during meal prep.

Third, the art of conversation seems more archaic in our house than doilies and cloth napkins. When all six of us sit down at the table, you'd think it was a union negotiation; everyone is making his point and no one is listening to anyone else.

And fourth, even though both my husband and I work outside the home, I can't recall the last time he left the office early to pick up a few groceries to put the family meal together. As a matter of fact, my beloved husband only recently learned that milk wasn't included in the tea bag and had to be added by someone who loved him.

Here's the big news, Ms. Heartburn: The point of having a family dinner is to recognize that we all need to pause and appreciate each other as often as we can or else child rearing will be one big blur of hurrying. Maybe, just maybe, food isn't the most important element in this family bonding equation. I'm going out on a limb here and saying that it may be several more years before our families are prepared to dine together, napkins in laps, interesting conversation flowing.

Is it sacrilege to suggest that you do as I now do and feed your kids their nutritious evening meal as soon as they get home from school and are more inclined to gulp down a vegetable and a protein or two? I think not. Then, when you and your mate are ready to sit down for dinner a couple of hours later, offer the kids a dessert or a bowl of cereal to munch on while you two enjoy a meal without any nagging about the kid who's hiding her peas under her mashed potatoes.

Most important, I think, is for your family to commit to one or two nights a week when you are not so rushed and crazy to create the ritual of a family meal. Perhaps your family tradition is a leisurely meal on Sunday. Or perhaps you enjoy Shabbat on Friday nights.

The second family dinner night can even be taking everyone out to the local pizza parlor where there's something on the menu for everyone and the preparation and clean-up are someone else's business.

On those off nights, I suggest trying another family activity, like a game of Clue or watching "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" together. It's the bonding and fun we're looking for here, not necessarily the caloric intake. Just remember to set some time aside nearly every night to check in with each member of the family in a relaxed way. Before you know it, your kids will be dining in some college dorm (God willing!).


Vicki Iovine is the author of the "Girlfriends' Guide," a columnist for Child magazine and parenting correspondent for NBC's "Later Today." Write to her at Girlfriends, Southern California Living, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, L.A., CA 90053; e-mail

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