Dinnertime Hacks When Soldier Isn't Home

Dinnertime Hacks When Soldier Isn't Home
Meal times can be a challenge when you're the solo parent. (Stock photo)

It's 6 o'clock. Do you know where your spatula is?

Literally, like, every expert (and a whole lot of non-experts) say that it's important for families to have dinner together, and they say we should be doing it at least three times a week.

But we know this already, don't we?

These experts tell us that children are more likely have have nutritious diets, better manners and deeper senses of security, well-being and family connection when they sit at a table with the members of their own family and they do it regularly.

According to TheFamilyDinnerProject.org:

"Recent studies link regular family dinners with many behaviors that parents pray for: lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression, as well as higher grade-point averages and self-esteem. Studies also indicate that dinner conversation is a more potent vocabulary-booster than reading, and the stories told around the kitchen table help our children build resilience. The icing on the cake is that regular family meals also lower the rates of obesity and eating disorders in children and adolescents."

Or, as the great Ron Burgundy would say, "It's a scientific fact."

But co-parenting with someone whose career keeps him or her away from home means that a full family dinner isn't always, or even usually, an option. And dinner without another adult present, especially when you have small children, is just not fun.

You work to find that perfect balance -- a meal that your kids might actually eat that includes foods that aren't only brown and might even require using a fork.

The reward for all your efforts is a table of soft little faces that insist on telling you the attributes of each individual Pokemon, the average life expectancy of an echidna and the latest adventures of Lalaloopsy -- while that one quiet child secretly stuffs pieces of pork chop under her booster seat that you will not discover for weeks.

It's just not fun.

When my husband is home, we have a strict "no TV during dinnertime" rule. But when he's gone, the kids are sometimes treated to hearing me yell out the answers on Jeopardy! And sometimes I even get those answers right.

So, over the years, I've come up with a few dinnertime hacks that work for my brood. Maybe they'll work for yours, too:

  1. Movie night. Once a week (always on Friday in my house), we order pizza and we watch a movie. Nothing groundbreaking there. But while we sit at the table eating the pizza, we all discuss our movie choices and those conversations can be hilarious.
  2. Fondue night. This is a new one that has been a big hit. The kids help me assemble the bread, meat and vegetables that we're going to dip in the cheese fondue. Then we prep the fruit we will dip in chocolate fondue. Bonus: Super easy meal prep. It's literally just chopping raw vegetables and pre-cooked meat.
  3. Books instead of conversation. I'm a book geek, and I discovered several deployments ago that my kids would sit at the table longer and eat more of their food if I read to them. So after I finish eating, I'll either read a whole children's book or a chapter from a longer child-appropriate novel. It's not a conversation, per se, but it is quality time.
  4. Good Things and Bad Things. We go around the table and everyone gets a chance to talk about the good things and bad things that happened to them that day. Usually we aim for three of each, but if someone seems long-winded, I've been known to limit them to only one of each. The kids love this game and it gives everyone a chance to learn what is going on in each other's lives.

But don't stop with just trying my hacks. There are tons of resources online to help parents make family meals happen. TheFamilyDinnerProject.org even has a list of One Line Conversation Starters, organized by the age of the child. They've got some good ones, like this one: If you had superpowers, what would they be and how would you use them to help people?

Oh, and it doesn't have to be dinner. If dinnertime is just too crazy because of work, school and afterschool schedules, aim for breakfast instead.

Or during the summer, you could make it a family lunch. According to this research, the timing of the meal isn't important. You can get the same family bonding and nutrition benefits at other times of the day.  The important thing is that you just have to do it. Starting now.

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