Four years ago, we were deep in the trenches of young family life. We had a spirited baby, a spirited toddler, and a spirited preschooler. (Are you sensing a theme? Ha!) We had an awesome and loving household with a pretty good rhythm, except for one thing…
Despite our despairing efforts, our family dinners were always the perfect storm of sheer frustration, wailing, chaos, and negativity.
I’d typically cook a healthy, real food dinner with a fussy baby on my hip while breaking up sibling bickering between the older two because everyone was tired and hungry and running on empty. We’d all get to the table so frazzled that we had no mental energy to patiently teach good manners and table behaviour, so we’d snap at the kids, then feel guilty. Gnarly moods are contagious, and it quickly devolved into complaining about the food, cajoling them in desperation into eating enough to be full, and missing every single possible chance for connecting on a heart level.
Forget about enjoying our family dinners. We just aimed to survive them.
And so we did. Survive, that is.
Except – we didn’t want to merely survive every family dinner for the rest of our kids’ childhoods, we wanted to enjoy them, darn it! We wanted it to be peaceful (in the context of normal kid ruckus), meaningful, and enjoyable for all.
A tall order, yes, but we had no choice but to try. So we sat down to brainstorm, consider, and strategize a new way going forward.
First things first: we thought about the peaceful and enjoyable dinners we’ve had in the past. As we’ve been together over the years (together for 16 years, married for 13), we have had a handful of fancy candlelit dinners at a restaurant on special occasions. When we are in those situations, our behaviour changes slightly. We are more aware of our actions, more careful in our manner, and more polite.
So, we thought, let’s try an experiment. What if we tried to create that sort of special atmosphere around our family dinner table?
So we did. And it worked miracles.
Fast forward four years to today, and the family dinner hour has become my favorite part of the day. The general ruckus is still there, but it’s managed. The kids still aren’t perfect (and shockingly, neither are the parents.)
But for the most part, here’s how our family dinners go down these days:
We set the table, light the candles, and ring the dinner bell.
Wiggly bottoms find their way to chairs after a few reminders, the food is served, one kid inhales the wafting scent (whether it’s nitrate-free hotdogs or a roast chicken dinner, or anything in between) and exuberantly exclaims (with total sincerity), “thank-you for makin’ this dinner, mama/daddy! It looks deeeeee-licious!” We join hands for our singing grace (it’s a nightly tradition), then dig in.
Our Manner of the Week is noted on the card in the centre of the table, and the kids gleefully point out when their siblings veer off-course (we’re working on humility next…) We take turns sharing our “roses and thorns” from our day, while low-key, relaxing music plays in the background.
The candlelight flickers in the centre atop our wax-dripped brass candlesticks, and as often as we can – a pot of peppermint tea cools nearby for us to drink together to kick off their bedtime routine.
Honestly, I cannot fully put into words how life-changing this whole process has been. It started with that initial experiment back in 2012 to eat by candlelight and tweak a few small things, which sparked an entirely new family culture each and every night around our table, and I’m so very grateful.