When we moved across the country — 15 years ago with three kids, the youngest being just 3 years old — the last thing our family needed (or so I thought) was a formal dining room.
There were many justifications for repurposing the large formal dining room, the biggest room in our house:
- We are not “formal dining room people,” plus we’ve left our friends and family behind in our former city.
- There’s a (small) eating area off the kitchen.
- We really, really need extra living space — and, hey, I’m all about making a home work for its people!
Sometimes, however, we become so used to doing things the same old way that we get stuck doing things the same old way.
One day, I had a moment of clarity. There we were, my lovely family — including two young men (now over 6 feet tall), girlfriends, my daughter, a boyfriend (you get the picture) — squeezed around a little table in a little room.
“What is this madness?” I asked. It was time to take back the dining room. Since I love to decorate, this gave me a fun new project — but my intentions were very altruistic, I swear!
I found a large vintage dining set at a country auction for $50, which fit my small redecorating budget quite well. Do you know that many of the baby boomers are downsizing and getting rid of their old dining room sets? There are some great bargains out there, and you can easily repurpose them so that they stand up to modern family living. Check out my how-to blog post.
What I am most happy about is that we not only gained a larger, more comfortable dining room, but also our occasional family dinners, typically held on special occasions, have evolved into a new tradition: the weekly family dinner night.
Here are our family dinner night “rules”:
Flexibility is key
Since everyone’s schedule is irregular — these are young people with school, shift work and part-time jobs, plus two of them are living on their own — we figure out a night that works for everybody. This is our biggest challenge, but lots of texting and messaging helps. If someone can’t make it, we carry on (and forgive them!).
A #NotFancy menu and atmosphere is preferred
My son’s girlfriend and I came up with this hashtag as a bit of a joke (it tends to drive my son a little crazy since he hates hashtags), but our meals can be classified as “cheap and cheerful.” This means, we cook a lot of Crock-Pot stews in the winter, barbecued burgers and chicken in the summer and easy, but comforting meals, such as spaghetti bolognese. I make sure that there is lots of food, since the two kids who don’t live at home love to take leftovers.
While the meal is casual, this doesn’t mean that we don’t pretty things up — candles, place mats, napkins and flowers are all essential parts of the dinner.
Participation in meal planning and preparation is highly valued
This did not start out as a rule, but it has evolved over time so that everyone is so invested in our weekly dinners that they get very involved in the meal planning. My foodie son will show up a couple of hours early, if time permits, to help with food prep. My daughter often brings over extra items for the meal and also helps out with food prep. Texting and Facebook messaging get utilized a lot — both with meal suggestions, grocery store bargains, recipes and, of course, scheduling.
Can I mention here that it is a lot more satisfying to text the kids who are no longer living at home with messages other than, “How are thing’s going?”
Friends are always welcome
Of course, we welcome significant others who become regular participants of the family dinners, but friends get included too, if they happen to be around. A girlfriend’s father was recently visiting from Europe, and it was highly anticipated by all of us that he would be joining us at the weekly dinner.
You will be shunned and mocked (OK, maybe a slight exaggeration) if you bring a cell phone to the table
The dinners are all about human interaction and lively conversation.
Nobody leaves until everything is cleaned up (Does this need to be said?)
Let’s just say that this is the expectation, but occasionally someone (I’m not naming names here) will sneak away early, thinking that nobody notices (we all do).
It is hard to summarize the benefits to my family of our regular weekly dinners, but sometimes when I walk into the kitchen to grab an item we forgot, I stop for a moment and listen to the sounds of my family’s laughter and conversation and silently give thanks to the wise and insightful builder of our old house, who knew that a formal dining room was an essential part of a family home.