I knew life was not right when my daughter woke me up one morning and asked if I had just returned from Kansas City, even though I had been sleeping at home for a week. I was working two jobs—commuting to the Midwest while teaching at a law school in lower Manhattan—and I could count on one hand the number of times I had sat down for a family dinner in the previous year. Many nights I returned home to find everyone asleep, and I left early in the morning before they awoke. This was not the life I imagined when my wife and I were graduate students so many years ago, sharing meals from a single Crock-Pot. Something had to change.
I also knew that sitting down at the table with your children helps keep them trim, healthy, and communicative, according to many experts. Most important, I knew I needed a way to keep my days from slipping away so that I didn’t wake up one morning to discover my children had grown and flown without me in their lives. So I set myself a rule: I would eat dinner with my family at least five nights a week for a year and share equally in the shopping, prepping, and cooking. Simple, right?
Of course it was anything but. My two-hour commute into New York didn’t help, nor did my frequent trips to the Midwest. I had to quit one job, learn to live on a lower paycheck, and accept that a dad can’t just whisk back into his kids’ (and wife’s) lives like a white knight and expect to receive a trumpet fanfare. He’s lucky if he gets a kazoo.
In the end, however, I learned a man can do anything he sets his mind to, so long as his wife doesn’t kick him out of the house first. Getting home on time was the easiest thing. Shopping and cooking were more difficult, and convincing the kids to eat was the hardest of all. It took a constantly evolving bag of tricks and a lot of patience to lure them to the table, but they eventually came and had just one question: “Hey, Dad, what’s for dinner?” Here are a few strategies I learned along the way. And if Dad needs a go-to signature dish, you could do far worse than learning how to make the ultimate burger.
Relieve the boredom of baked chicken and bring the kids to the table with a Hawaiian luau or Tex-Mex. Nowadays, with services like Hello Fresh, Blue Apron, and Plated delivering fresh, natural ingredients and easy-to-follow recipes straight to your doorstep—they’re a lot tastier than you’d expect—it’s the golden age for spontaneous Taco Tuesdays.
This is another way to mix it up and give the kids something to get excited about. It’s hard to say no to pancakes and dinner in your pj’s. Strangely, this is the only time my son will eat scrambled eggs. In the morning, he wants pizza. Go figure. Let him have it: it’ll raise your dad game exponentially.
Eating in front of the television can be fun. Plan a family dinner and movie night and talk about what you’ve watched. Compared with today’s standard fare, classic flicks from the ’70s and ’80s are much more kid-friendly than you might think. Just maybe save the 20 greatest and most realistic fight scenes for your own free time.
If everyone brings a dish to family dinner, there’s a better chance everyone will have something to eat. And it teaches kids to plan their own meals. Even a salad with iceberg lettuce is a good start. When my 8-year-old daughter is cooking, it’s noodles for everyone—dry noodles. I’m on boiling duty. But it’s okay; an artsy shot posted to Instagram will make her feel like a true chef de cuisine. And who knows, maybe it will land me on the 50 Instagram accounts that every dad needs to follow.
You don’t have to have the family dinner at home. If Dad (or Mom) is working late, have a picnic dinner at the office. Your boss will appreciate your commitment, your coworkers can join the party, and the meal will certainly be healthier than the takeout you were about to order from the Yum Mee Chinese restaurant around the corner.
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