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I probably couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people talk (or write) about how important it is to eat dinner as a family. “That time is so important to connect and bond.” It’s a chance to “provide healthy food options” and “save money over eating out.” I’ve even seen it called “the most important thing you can do.”

I don’t really think so. I absolutely think finding time to connect and bond as a family is important. I just don’t think that it has to happen at dinner. I also think that providing healthy food is important. I just don’t think you have to eat it together.

We tried to do family dinner for a long time and this is what most of our nights used to look like: We picked our kids up from daycare and they were hungry and ready for dinner. Most of the drive home they were grumpy because they were hungry. We gave them a snack in the car, but it didn’t really help. We got home and would feel stressed and rushed to prepare dinner because I knew the reason they were grumpy was because they were hungry. By the time we got food on the table, it felt like a race to get tummies filled to put everyone back in good spirits. After dinner they usually wanted to watch a short video. (We have a family rule that they are each allowed to pick one video to watch on weeknights (25-40 minutes total).) It wasn’t that fun. It wasn’t good family bonding time. And, it wasn’t really working for us.

We decided to take a break from family dinner and here is what most of our nights look like now: We pack a healthy dinner and take it along when we pick the girls up from daycare and school. As soon as we are in the car and buckled they get their tray of food and eat dinner on the drive home. Usually they are done or almost done by the time we get home, but sometimes they eat a little more or have a second helping when we get home. When we get home, they usually choose to watch their 45 minutes of videos while my husband and I make and eat our dinner (usually planning for some leftovers that can be part of their packed dinner the next night). They usually finish their video around the time that we finish dinner and then we can all play together (and talk and bond!) until bedtime. It works so much better for us.

At first I felt guilty that we weren’t eating dinner as a family. I worried that we were neglecting some important family ritual. Isn’t that something you’re supposed to do? When I thought about what it really was that we were trying to get from that activity, though, I realized that it wasn’t the eating dinner part that I wanted. I wanted to have time as a family to connect and talk and play. When we stopped trying to force family dinner, we suddenly had so much more time in the evenings for that!

I do still love the idea of family dinner and it is nice when we eat together on the weekends and other times that it happens to work out. Maybe someday we’ll get back to a routine where eating dinner together makes sense for us during the week too. Until then, I’m going to love our family time together talking and paying after dinner!