The revered family ritual doesn't always feel like a magical way for parents to connect with their kids. Sometimes, it just feels like a hot, joyless mess.
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Mom holding baby while trying to eat
Credit: Getty

Some of us have a cultural idea of family dinners should look like, where everyone sits pleasantly around a large table, praises the meal (and the person who cooked it), and shares stories about their days. In that picture, everyone clears their plate. No one spills. No one complains. Everyone just eats (while the meal is still hot!) and enjoys some sweet family bonding at the end of a long day.

But for parents—especially parents of young children—that picture probably doesn't feel accurate. Like, at all. Instead, family dinners might look like a frazzled cook attempting to chop vegetables while a toddler tugs at their leg incessantly, or a baby throwing bites of lovingly cut-up food, or a young kid deciding they suddenly can't stand a meal they loved just days before. In short? It's not what we were promised.

We don't talk much about the messy, often downright unpleasant realities of family dinners. But now, a mom is getting real about how she feels about this ritual.

"It's more stress than anything else these days," the mom writes in a Reddit post. "It's such a minefield just to think about what to cook every day—the husband doesn't like this, the baby doesn't like that, the toddler doesn't like anything. Then, once you've thought of something everyone might actually eat, it's trying to cook while it's 'mummy come see this, mummy come help with that'."

She's right: The chore of family dinners begins long before you've ever started preparing the meal, and it doesn't end once the dinner is actually cooked. "Then it's finally cooked, so quickly let's cut it up into toddler and baby appropriate sized pieces, put it all on their plates, has everyone got everything? Everyone got a drink? Excellent, let's sit down and eat while it's still hot. No, don't throw it on the floor. Eat nicely. No, don't shove it in your nose," she writes.

And of course there's cleanup, which is always so much more involved when you're also attempting to corral little kids—even if you've cooked a simple one-pot meal. The mom says it best: "I don't find any enjoyment in meals these days."

She's not alone. "This is the most relatable thing I've ever read on this sub!!!! I feel like the whole day is planned around mealtimes. And then the planning of the meals is the worst part for me. Hate it with the fire of 1000 suns," one commenter writes. Several others join the original poster in bemoaning daily family dinners and the all of the hard work that comes with them.

As a mom of three-year-old twins, I really relate to what these parents are saying—so much so that I've actually given myself permission to just say no to family dinners right now. It won't be forever, but for now, either my husband or I feed the kids dinner while the other parent sneaks in a workout, then, after the kids are in bed, I cook our dinner and the two of us eat a relaxing meal, complete with hot food and adult conversation.

Yes, that means we eat dinner pretty late. Yes, I'm going against the common advice that children should get used to eating all meals with their families. But this setup works really well for us: I love to cook (and I really love to eat), and this way I actually get to enjoy creating and consuming a nice meal. And while I know the experts might not love this setup, I really don't feel any guilt around my choice to hold off on family dinners, especially since I spend all day, every day with my kids.

My approach certainly doesn't seem to be the norm (and I get it! Not everyone wants to prepare and serve two dinners, and most people prefer to eat an earlier meal), but I'm not alone.

A commenter on this post writes in to say they also eat after their toddler goes to bed, which is balanced out by the fact that the family has lunch and breakfast together. Another commenter says that set up sounds "perfect," which has me wondering: Would more parents be happier rethinking the idea of family dinners too? Do we just need to change the heavy cultural emphasis we place on this ritual?

Right now, parents are reconfiguring how they approach family life, with so many of us working from home, managing the responsibilities of pandemic parenting, and simply not having the time to churn out an elaborate, nutritious meal every single night. Many of us spending more time with our kids than ever before while also working longer hours. In light of all that, do we need to just readjust our approach to family dinners?

Sure, family dinners can be a beautiful way for families to connect, and that's incredibly important. But it's also important for parents to find space for joy every day and to take a few minutes for themselves. For couples to get the chance to sit down and have an adult conversation at the end of the day, with no food fights erupting around them and no picky toddler palates dictating what they can have.

Right now, I'm saying no to family dinners, and I still have two great little eaters, kids who try new foods and happily stray from the typical toddler diet (I'm aware this could just be temporary luck). We spend tons of time as a family and find other opportunities to connect as a unit (again, I'm aware of how lucky we are here). My approach might not be the "right" one, according to feeding experts, but it's working for my family, at least for right now.

So if you, like the original poster of this comment, find yourself missing the joy of dinnertime, maybe you just...don't have to do it. Maybe that means implementing family breakfast. Maybe it means having a snack with your kids, then eating a full dinner later in the night. Maybe it means serving frozen pizza multiple times a week. Maybe it means scheduling a weekly "date night" (even if it's just at home) where you and your partner enjoy a nice meal by yourself. Maybe it means keeping nightly family dinners, but adjusting your expectations around them.

Whatever the case may be, you're not failing if you don't love family dinners. And if this Reddit thread is any indication, you're certainly not alone.