The Importance of Family Dinners: How Can This Nightly Circus Possibly Be So Beneficial?

Experts agree that regular family dinners have a gazillion benefits. Kids are less likely to be overweight, obese or have eating disorders. They’re less likely to smoke, drink, try weed or use illicit drugs. They’re more likely to excel in school. Family dinners lower depression rates and teen pregnancies. There’s even a non-profit called The Family Dinner Project (www.thefamilydinnerproject.org) out of Harvard University, the mission of which is to grow this movement of “fun, food and conversation.”

Um, I’d like these scientists to come to dinner at my house.

Our meals always start off okay in that our diner-style table sits there innocently enough, paper napkins folded, silverware usually out before we all sit down. Enough warm tasty food that my husband has spent the late afternoon cooking to go around at everyone’s place. (Note: marry a chef. Best. Thing. Ever.)

DURSTON SAYLOR. The calm before the storm.

Then, we all descend like locusts. Somehow I manage to get the two-year-old and four-year-old strapped into their boosters in the back of the U-shaped banquette. Then the 10-year-old twins sit down. That’s when the little ones start screaming, “I want Mommy to sit next to me!” Wailing ensues.

There’s a reshuffling of seats. I dig deep in the recesses of my brain for how to compute the number of combinations and permutations of seating arrangements for the six of us because I know we’ll get to all of them. Sometimes my older son picks up my little one while he’s still strapped in the booster and tries to move him across the table. My husband luckily swoops in before the inevitable crash.

Eventually, we all sit down. Then someone knocks over a water glass. Then we all get up. The kids typically just stare at the downed glass, watching water slither across the table as if it’s an exotic snake they’ve never seen before.

“Get your napkins!” I yell, shoving paper towels into the mess. Why are they just sitting there?

We sit back down, although now someone is complaining that they’re wet. Go figure. Everyone’s attention finally turns to their plates.

JAMIE MORTIMER. This was just a five-minute birthday celebration for a friend. Table destroyed.

“I hate hamburgers!” whines one kid.

Never mind that they happily ate one yesterday.

“I want a bun!” says another, forgetting that all the kids hate buns.

“We don’t have buns. You don’t hate hamburgers,” I say, cutting my little one’s food.

“I need more ketchup!” my son says, despite the bowl of ketchup we’ve placed next to him. His meal is really ketchup with a side of grass-fed beef.

“Can I have sparkling water?” my daughter asks.

My husband, their step-dad, sits at the “head” of the square table in a chair, the only one not on the U-banquette, and shakes his head.

“Guys, let’s just eat!” I say. “It’s time to play best-and-worst. Who wants to go first?”

Best-and-worst is my attempt to get kids to listen to each other at the table or, at least, not yell over each other so obviously. Each kid has to answer what their best, worst and most challenging moment was that day, along with the time they laughed the hardest. Even though they all roll their eyes at the game a little, I always learn something about their day that they hadn’t told me.

JAMIE MORTIMER. At the beginning of a more successful dinner. Take out!

My little one goes first.

What was your best today? Mickey Mouse. What was your worst today? Goofy.

Okay, well I learn about my older kids’ days.

The game is then interrupted again by: “Can I have eggs?” What? No! And then, “Can I be excused?” What? No!

Sometimes I take a sliced pepper strip or a cucumber stick and hold it up like a microphone and interview them about their best and worst. Often they’ll eat the microphone, which is great. Sometimes I have to play the “don’t eat my meatball!” game where I hold my fork aloft until a kid eats the food off of it and I pretend to be surprised. “Ah! Who stole my meatball?”

I make sure the big kids don’t just eat the carbs on their plate. I make sure the little kids eat at all. Then we move on to jokes. My husband secretly Googles knock-knock jokes and reads a bunch from his lap. We go around and tell a few good ones. Which are not actually good, I mean who are we kidding.

ZIBBY OWENS — SCREENSHOT. Hiding a book like this under the table can help.

If I’m lucky, my younger daughter might ask, again, “Tell me a story from when you were a little girl and you got hurt.” She asks me this at least five times every day. I’m hoping this stems from her desire to be a doctor (Doc McStuffins, watch out!) and that one day I can regale her med school classmates with her fascination of injuries. I’m trying not to take it personally that her greatest joy comes from hearing tales of my pain and suffering.

My older son asks to be excused again, right when the two little ones start singing “Despacito” at the top of their lungs while my older daughter does a modified split at the table.

“No, you can’t be excused,” I bark.

“But I’m done,” he says. “I need to do my homework.”

“You can’t get up! You have to stay for our family dinner!”

“But why?” He groans.

“So you won’t be a drug addict!!” I scream back.

Then someone knocks over another water cup.

“Okay, everyone up. Forget it!” I yell, grabbing more paper towels. “Clear your plates! Say ‘thank you’ for dinner.”

And that’s that.

Maybe I’ve eaten five bites. Or I’ve eaten my whole meal so fast that I can barely swallow and didn’t even notice I’d eaten it. I think most the kids have been fed adequately. I don’t think they’ll wake up hungry but who knows. I’ll find out at 4:00 am. I sit there at the empty table inspecting the detritus the kids have left.

This is what’s so important? I must be doing this all wrong. I have visions of other families sitting at long, fancy dining room tables, their kids eating from the finest china, dabbing their mouths with their napkins, pinkies in the air as they drink their unspilled water, speaking respectfully and calmly about the days’ events. Where did I go so astray? I insist on these nightly meals and yet I’m not exactly at my best. It’s overwhelming for me to eat with all four kids at once and I’m their mom! Did I mention the whole thing is probably 15 minutes at best?

I was venting to a few moms at pick-up about how stressful dinnertime had become. Another school mom dead-panned, “Yeah, I’m trying to phase out dinner.”

Well, despite it all, I’m going to keep at it. I love my kids more than anything and I’ll do anything those experts say. I’m beyond lucky to be able to be home with them each night for dinner. I’m hoping as the kids grow up, we’ll be able to have more “normal” dinners and that, maybe, they’ll look back on these times fondly. I know I will, in retrospect. And if not, at the least I hope it stops them from smoking crack. Because I might be the one starting.