Sitting down to family dinner every night is very important to me. It provides a backbone to the day, and the week, also, since I plan our meals weekly. In principle, it's a very simple idea: sitting together to eat homemade food at a set table, and talking with each other. In reality, it is often still that simple. The three elements of our nightly gathering are all there, in that above sentence. I'd love to talk a little more about each one!
Sitting together to eat homemade food.
This is the main part. My family gathers around a dining table, and we all eat the same meal. We have done it this way since well before our kids were born, and my family did this growing up. We usually serve dishes family-style (laid out on the table), as you can see in the photos - that way, children can learn how to serve themselves from the platters and bowls, and gauge how much they need on their own. Homemade food is rarely complicated, which is why helping to cook family meals at home is so accessible to young children. The kids often have helped me prepare some aspect of the dinner, like salad dressing (the carrot-miso dressing in the photo above was made in a blender in a total of 4 minutes. Whisking dressing or shaking it in a mason jar are also great kid tasks.) I typically aim for at least two dishes, and just like the meals my Dad used to make, there is always a salad, which again is very straightforward and an ideal task for children to take on. Our kids eat quite a wide variety of foods, though of course they have favourites. (More on helping kids try lots of different foods in this post.) We ask that the kids try each of the items on the table, and I don't worry if they don't eat a lot of food. If they're hungry, they'll eat something, and if not, they'll probably have more breakfast the next morning! I don't offer evening snacks, since that's not an ideal time for little bodies to digest, so they know there's nothing more available once dinner is over. Dessert we'll have only occasionally, on celebratory days.
At a set table.
This, I think, is also a critical aspect of eating together: taking care to set each person a place, with whatever they will need for the meal. It's ideal if tableware is all non-disposable: try cloth napkins, rather than paper. I have just this past week started to "wean" my two kids off plastic plates and cups, so we can all use the same dishes when we have dinner. I think they're ready, and it's a case of out of sight out of mind (I've already recycled that squeezy bottle Cash is using, below! Get thee gone!). A carefully set table brings a significance to the meal, and children love having the same tools to use as the adults.
As I said above, our kids have been part of dinner since they were born, and when they started sitting at a highchair and eating with us, of course, they used non-breakable tableware. (Read more about whole foods in babyhood in my post about Baby-Led Weaning!)
Candles are beautiful to brighten any table. I bought several gorgeous beeswax candles this past winter and used them for a while, until my daughter became scared of the fire and proclaimed, for days on end, "Never I want to light candles again!" So, you can't win 'em all.
Talking with each other.
At Family Dinner we talk about everything: politics, geography, everyone's days, scientific experiments, the meal we're eating. One of my favourite meals involved a wonderful discussion about how exactly the Earth moves around the sun, including demonstrations. Once there was a great chat about the concept of debt. One of Cash's go-to dinner phrases for a while was "I want to talk about Canada!", prompting a hilarious exchange about a year ago (Polly was 2, Cash 3.5) that went like this:
Cash: "I want to talk about Canada!"
Polly: "So how was your day, Canada?"
I do not think it's possible for children to be too young to start encouraging a frank exchange of ideas, with all family members, at the dinner table. They want so badly to be part of the adult world. Here is a way to begin to gently teach them how.
One of our favourite dinners, which the kids love, is something we call "DIY sushi" (seen in the photo under the title of this post). We will put out all kinds of elements and everyone builds their own hand rolls (or "nori wraps", as the kids call them). Sashimi (usually tuna and salmon), sushi rice, squares of nori seaweed and sliced avocado are always there. From there, the sky's really the limit. Tomato-tofu salad with sesame dressing, grilled eggplant with miso glaze, sriracha mayonnaise, and miso soup are all hits at our table. I often make this carrot-miso dressing from one of my most inspiring cookbooks, Laurie David's The Family Cooks. It's perfect on a crunchy green salad with tomatoes, avocados, and cucumbers.
Carrot-Miso Dressing, adapted from The Family Cooks
In a blender or food processor, combine 2 carrots (coarsely chopped), 1 small shallot (coarsely chopped), 1/3 cup rice vinegar, 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil, 3 tablespoons yellow miso paste, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger, and 1/4 cup water. Blend until smooth. Taste, and adjust seasonings with some salt and pepper, if you like. The dressing will keep, tightly covered, in the fridge for at least a week.