06/27/2012 11:25 am ET Updated Aug 27, 2012

How to Have Family Dinner

When I was growing up, family dinner was not called family dinner. It was called dinner. My suit-and-tied dad would walk in the door a little before 7:00, usually carrying a challah or a baguette from New York City where he commuted to every day, then Dad, Mom, and my two siblings would all be sitting down to a homemade meal 15 minutes later. Beyond a few family classics -- crispy breaded chicken cutlets, spaghetti and meatballs, a killer lemony-cream baked chicken dish -- I don't really recall in detail what was on our plates. My mom worked, too, and she was a master of the quick crowdpleaser, but I viewed the food mostly as fuel -- the necessary calories I needed to replenish after a long day of school and sports, the necessary draw to get us all sitting down together to download after a long day of school and sports.

The more I talk to parents today -- on my blog and even just at the bus stop -- the more it seems like dinner has come to resemble more of an obligation than a time of day to sit down and exhale. Yes, our days look different than they did back when our parents were feeding us: There was no expectation to be digitally connected to the office 24/7; there were not nearly as many sports activities beginning at 6:00 at night (at night!), but somewhere along the way family dinner seems to have turned into a giant report card, with all of us being graded on an overwhelming number of factors. To name just a few:

  • Are you all sitting down together?
  • Are you all getting along?
  • Are you all eating the same thing?
  • Is that same thing wholesome and homemade?
  • Is that homemade same thing made with ingredients that are organic?
  • Local? Sustainable?
  • Are you getting detailed updates from your children?
  • Are you discussing the National Debt?

I eat with my family every night. For three years, I've been writing about eating with my family every night. And if I was grading myself on all these factors I would be failing miserably. Do I need to remind you that this is my job? Is there any wonder why parents with real jobs -- in real offices with real commutes -- are overwhelmed by the idea of executing a simple shared meal?

This is why, when people ask me where to start, I always say to start small and build. You can probably get to the point where you are getting A's every night on all the factors listed above (well, except maybe the National Debt one), but if you are just starting out -- and especially if you have kids -- it's going to be hard to get to that point right away. Start by focusing on three of those factors, which I believe to be the cornerstones of family dinner as I once knew it:

1. Is every member of the family is accounted for and seated, facing
one another?

2. Is there a homemade meal on the table?

3. Is everyone eating (more or less) the same thing.

If I can honestly say that I can answer yes to two of these three questions, then you better believe I'm marking it down on my Successful Family Dinner report card. That means it counts if everyone is at the table eating takeout moo shu pork. If my husband and I are eating squid while our daughters are sitting with us chowing down on cheeseburgers, that counts, too. If only my husband is there, but they're all eating grilled double-cut lamb chops and kale salad, I'm going to feel pretty good about that. And if you can't swing that right away? Don't sweat it. The best thing about dinner is that you know you can start all over again tomorrow.

Photos From "Dinner: A Love Story"