Family dinner is, apparently, pure magic for child-rearing. Do it right and your kids will be less likely to suffer from depression or substance abuse, while enjoying higher self-esteem and better grades. So say the Canadian Pediatric Society, the American College of Pediatricians and the U.S. National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, among a host of others. Do you feel the pressure yet?
Most of us also know the stress of dinner, and we're having a harder time getting it on the table than ever before: 69 per cent of couples with at least one kid under 16 are dual-earner families, compared with 36 per cent in 1976, according to Statistics Canada. Almost two-thirds of us work more than 45 hours a week, according to the 2012 National Study on Balancing Work and Caregiving in Canada, a survey of more than 25,000 Canadians. And on top of all that, kids can be whiny, picky jerks.
Busy parents want their kids to eat healthy foods and be happy. They want quality time with their children whenever they can squeeze it in between work e-mails and decision fatigue. There's no single recipe for how to do dinner: Inside, five families tell us how they've turned the tables on the most important, annoying meal of the day.
The slow-cooker solution
The family: Michelle Bennett, an executive assistant who lives in Whitby, Ont., with her husband, a Toronto Transit Commission clerk, and their two kids, ages 6 and 8.
Mealtime motto: "I don't want any fights. I just want to sit and eat."
How dinner is done: Since last summer, Bennett sits down and plans two months' worth of dinners (most of the recipes are taken straight off Pinterest). Once a month, she prepares 31 meals that are placed in Ziploc bags and put in the freezer along with cooking instructions. Every morning, she pulls one out and sets a slow cooker to start in the mid-afternoon.
On days when Bennett forgets to grab a bag in the morning, she will either order takeout or whip up a stir-fry. She has also been known to make pancakes and eggs for dinner. With more time on the weekends, she will roast a chicken, or put together some other prepared meal.
"I'm stressed for maybe five hours every month or so," she says, referring to the time it takes to write out grocery lists and shop. "But then it's stress-free for the rest of the month, so it's totally worth it."
The appeal:Preparing meals far in advance doesn't spare Bennett just from the grind of thinking of what to make for dinner each night while her kids get testy. It also gives the family more quality time, she says. "Dinner for me is a chance to catch up with my kids and find out what they did during the day. By having all my meals already done, I actually get to focus on them because all I have to do is serve."
Walk away from the stress
The family: Heather Blumberg, a Toronto-based senior manager at Deloitte & Touche; her husband, Arryn, a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers; and their kids, ages 14 and 7.
Mealtime motto: "If the kids are happy, if they're eating healthy, if they're not out causing trouble, why stress it?"
How dinner is done: Although the Blumbergs have a dining-room table that seats 14, the family never sits down at it together for dinner. "The kids will usually eat either in the TV room or up in their bedrooms," Blumberg says, adding that she and Arryn rarely eat at the same time, either. "It just doesn't matter to us. We're together all the time."
The kids will grab a plate of whatever Heather or Arryn are cooking, or, more often, assemble a meal from what's in the fridge (mom and dad make sure it always has lots of fruits and vegetables). There are a few rules: no pop and no taking candy or snacks without asking. "If it's a late night, we will order takeout for the kids," Blumberg says.
The appeal: Forcing everyone to eat together when kids are eating healthy and the family gets plenty of quality time is more of a pain than it's worth, says Blumberg, who points to homework time and breakfast as good bouts of quality time. "The only meal I could serve they would all eat without complaining is steak and veggies. The rest of the dinner would be the kids going, 'What's wrong? Are you getting a divorce? Why are we doing this?'"
The family: Lesley Barron, a surgeon who lives in Georgetown, Ont., with her husband, Simon, an accountant and "house husband," and their three children, ages 6, 7 and 9.
Mealtime motto: "Your kids are looking to as you the model for their behaviour."
How dinner is done: "We always sit down at the table to eat together," Barron says. "It's a guaranteed 15 or 20 minutes that we're going to get every day as a family." Simon usually does the cooking, and each child gets to choose a meal once a week. The youngest likes tacos; the middle child loves salmon. There is always at least one vegetable. No one is allowed screens at the table, except Lesley when she's on call. "It's family time."
The appeal: "You really need a review of the day or sometimes what's coming up in the week," Barron says. Eating together provides that quality time and helps kids pick up good eating habits from their parents, she says. But dinnertime shouldn't be a "war zone," she says. Barron's children have to try new food, but if they hate it, she's not going to make them finish everything on their plates. "There's a lot more important behaviour to focus on with kids than controlling to the nth degree what they're eating."
The family: Tracie Donald, a teacher who lives in Toronto with her husband, James, a lawyer, and their two kids, ages 2 and 3.
Mealtime motto: "I like that I don't have to think about it."
How dinner is done: Every Sunday night for the past eight years, Donald and a friend from her neighbourhood have exchanged meals. "Usually, whatever I'm making on Sunday, I'll just double it," she says. "One of us will walk over to the other's house when the kids are asleep and trade a bag." The swap could be chicken shawarma in exchange for turkey and vegetable pie, or spaghetti for fajitas. Portion-wise, it's typically enough for one full family meal, plus one more serving for Donald to have for lunch later in the week.
The appeal:Donald gave up being picky about the variety and quality of the swapped meals a long time ago. After all, busy parents are just happy to have a meal at the ready. "As long as we're getting food that I can feed the kids on a weeknight, I don't care what it is," Donald says, since being spared planning and preparing even a single weeknight dinner pays extraordinary dividends. "I just have to heat it up," she says. "I don't know what I would do without it. It's a real life saver."
Signed, sealed, delivered
The family: Jamie Squires, vice-president of Surrey, B.C.-based Fifth Avenue Real Estate Marketing Ltd.; her husband, Jody, a real estate agent; and her two kids, ages 6 and 9.
Mealtime motto: "I do like to cook, but I just don't have the time."
How dinner is done: Working a minimum of 60 hours a week and then stressing to put healthy food on the table in time for kids to be shuttled off to activities doesn't leave much room for making meals from scratch. Squires orders two to three dinners a week from Real Meals, a service that delivers frozen meals such as lasagna and English cottage pie (both for $25 each). "At first, it sounds expensive, but then you crunch the numbers and you're like, 'Wait a minute, it's the same or less, but I don't have to do it,'" Squires says.
The appeal: Trying to squeeze making dinner into an already hectic life meant no one was happy, and no one was eating all that well. "It was stressful, chaotic. There was a lot of pizza," Squires says. This way, she and her family can enjoy the benefits of dinner without any tension. "It's a chance to sit down with my husband and kids and talk and unwind and have a meal, which I can't do if I have to cook the meal and do the prepping," Squires says.