For Lion’s first eighteen months, we would come home, play with him, and try to get him to eat something—anything—before putting him down to bed. I would cook dinner while Mr. Dolphin would handle the bedtime routine and we often wouldn’t start eating until after 8pm. By the time we were done eating and doing the dishes, we were exhausted and never felt like doing more work or tidying up the house. Whether Lion would eat or not was always hit or miss and it was difficult getting him to eat dinner rather than play. Dinner for Lion would be leftovers, fruit, or some snack that he wanted, not always the most nutritious or filling meal.

Right after Panda was born, we decided to switch from eating after Lion (and now Panda, as well) went to bed for the evening to having a family dinner. I am so glad that we moved in this direction. In fact, studies have shown huge benefits in having a family dinner each night (or at least correlations), from improved vocabulary and earlier literacy, to healthier eating in children and improved health outcomes.

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I have no idea why Lion insists on eating his burrito from the side instead of the top.

In our own experience, Lion eats better, we get to share time as a finally, Mr. Dolphin and I have more time together in the evening, and I actually have the energy to do work after the kids go to bed! Panda has participated in family dinners his entire life, though he slept through most of them in the first few months, often times in my arms. I love having family dinners and have always admired families that manage to eat together every night even as the kids grow older and activities start filling the schedule.

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The first couple of nights were a big adjustment for Lion. He was used to sitting at his table, snacking on whatever he wanted (in large part because his daycare would give him whatever leftover food he had from the day and feed him at 5pm, so he often wasn’t hungry for dinner at 6pm) and then getting up in between to play. He didn’t love being strapped into his high chair/booster seat because he was restricted from moving around. When he turned two, we also stopped catering to his demands to eat “something else” and gave him the option of the dinner I had made—which usually consists of several items that he can pick from—or an avocado as the backup choice. Sometimes he still gets mad and says he doesn’t want whatever has been served for dinner, but he is learning that he can at least eat something from his plate since I always make sure there’s something he likes (he actually likes most food, but is unpredictable as to when he likes a particular item).

Here’s what our experience with the family dinner has been like.

Lion Eats Healthier and Usually Larger Quantities

Lion has always eaten pretty well at daycare and I attribute that, in part, to the fact that he is surrounded by other kids who eat at the same time he is. He doesn’t feel like he’s missing out on fun and doesn’t question mealtime when others are eating, too.

Because we eat as a family, he can see that we are all being served the same food. Strangely, our toddler sometimes insists that he doesn’t want to eat the food that’s on his plate, but instead wants the identical food on my plate. But hey, as long as he’s going to eat dinner, I won’t complain. He used to want things like freeze dried fruit, snap peas or a muffin for dinner, but now understands that we eat the same things. We do have a backup of avocado, a peanut/almond butter sandwich, or sometimes leftovers from the previous night, just in case he is really insistent on an alternative meal option, but overall it has been much easier to avoid mealtime battles. I’m super happy that he’s eating substantial meals with protein and vegetables instead of fruit and snacks!

I will admit that I try to cheat things in my favor by including a variety of foods, some of which he knows he has to try and others that he really enjoys.

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Lion trying to decide whether to tackle the cabbage, rice or sausage next. 

We Talk to Lion and Panda About Their Day

One of the very normal dinnertime conversations in many households is “so, what did you do today?” and ours is no different. It’s a natural question to ask, particularly because dinner is the first thing we do after getting home. We usually frame the question a little more narrowly for Lion, like “Who did you play with at school today?” with the appropriate follow ups, but it allows us time to really engage with Lion about his day. As Lion has gotten older, it has been so much fun seeing his progress in his ability to share information about the day. While at 18-months, he would simply answer our very simple questions, at 2.5 years, he can tell us long and detailed stories about the books they read or the games he played.

We talk to Panda, too, and while he doesn’t answer us, Lion likes that we engage them both. And sometimes, Lion will answer for Panda!

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Avocado EVERYWHERE. Yes, that shirt is supposed to be white.

We Pray Together

Family dinner is the one time each day where we sit together and pray, saying grace before we eat. While we take our kids to mass each Sunday, I really haven’t done much with regards to teaching them how to pray yet. I really love common Catholic prayers because every Catholic knows the Our Father, Hail Mary and standard grace and I have always found it so beautiful and powerful to pray together. Lion now knows some of the words to the prayer and loves to exclaim, “amen!” then make the sign of the cross. Even Panda gets in on the action and starts clapping his hands together when he sees us making the sign of the cross.

We Witness Cute Moments Together

Prior to starting the family dinner, often one parent would try to coax Lion to eat something while the other parent would be off doing chores or working. By sharing dinner together, we’re able to all spend time together for a designated twenty to thirty minutes each day. The kids have so many hilarious and cute moments and it’s nice to know that we’re witnessing and sharing them together.

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Out of nowhere, Lion declared at dinner, “Look! I’m a reindeer!”

Mr. Dolphin and I Have More Time to Connect Over Dinner

Just as we talk to the kids about their day, Mr. Dolphin and I also connect with each other. Prior to the family dinner, it would often be so late when we started eating that we would both be tired, flop down on the couch and watch TV while we ate dinner. I never really liked the fact that we were constantly eating dinner in front of the TV and disconnecting from the outside world to focus on what is happening between us as a family has been really nice.

I Have More Time to Work After Dinner

Having a family dinner somehow has given me back an enormous amount of time to work. Even though I come home early, I more than make up that time after the kids go to bed. We used to not finish dinner and dishes until well after 8:30 or 9 and at that hour, I would just want to shower and go to bed. Because we now finish dinner by around 6:30 and put Lion down a little after 7:00, I can spend the time from 7 to 9 working. I’m also able to work past 9 because I’m already in the groove of working, rather than facing the prospect of having to start work at that hour.

While switching to the family dinner has overall been really great and I prefer it to eating separately, but it is not without a couple of drawbacks:

Change in Work Schedule

Often times, unless I use the slow cooker to make the meal in advance, I have to leave work earlier than I usually would so that I can go home and make dinner before picking the kids up from daycare. If dinner isn’t ready when the kids come home, it is more difficult to get Lion to sit down at the table because it breaks his routine and he gets sucked into his books or toys. Additionally, if we pick up the kids first, dinner prep takes longer and we end up not eating until closer to 6:45pm, which is really close to Lion’s bedtime and past Panda’s bedtime. As I mentioned in my day-in-the-life post, I am very grateful to have a flexible work schedule that allows me to leave early, then do more work after the kids go to bed.

Still, it means that when I know I can’t get off of work early, I have to plan in advance to have a slow cooker meal ready or have leftovers in the fridge that we can heat up quickly. It can be tricky and occasionally stressful, but ultimately it is worth it. Earlier this year, when I considered taking another job with a commute that was more than twice as long, one of my big concerns was having to come up with a daily slow cooker meal to make sure dinner was ready by the time we got home.

Rushed Dinners

Sometimes, Lion is quite content to sit in his booster seat and eat dinner. Sometimes, even when he is done eating, he will hang out for a little bit and talk with us or, if he’s earned a treat for eating all his dinner, his time at the table is easily extended. Other times, he doesn’t eat much and quickly says he’s all done, then clamors to get down. While we try to explain that he can get down, but that the rest of the family is still eating, this lesson still hasn’t quite caught hold with him. On these nights, Lion will incessantly ask “Papa all done?” or “Mama all done?” or demand, “I want Panda to get down and play with me!” and Mr. Dolphin and I rush to finish our dinners (even as we try to teach him patience). Gone are the leisurely dinners. However, Mr. Dolphin said that an unexpected bonus of the rushed dinners, though, is the fact that he is unlikely to get second helpings or overeat.

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I don’t know how long we will continue to have family dinners every single night together, but I hope it continues to be the norm throughout the kids’ years at home with us. I would also love to have dinner with them every Sunday even after the grow up, if they live in the same area as us. I always love watching TV shows or movies that have that strong tradition of weekly dinners, even when the children have become adults.