I Always Dreamed of the Perfect Family Dinner Time. Then I Had Kids.

Family dinners are a big deal in our house. We eat dinner together every evening and are usually interrupted once or twice by the neighborhood children, who apparently never eat. Ever.

But all that aside, we have a grand time sitting around our dinner table and talking about our days. It’s raucous and crazy and loud and full of constant chatter — because kids aren’t even quiet when they stuff food in their mouths.

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It’s probably safe to say that I care a bit more about manners than Husband does, because he doesn’t even blink when the kids answer a question with an over-full mouth stuffed with spaghetti, most of which, in their answering, escapes from their mouths to the table, and the rest of which shoots across toward my eyes, since they’re laughing so hard at the way it looked. It’s about as disgusting as it sounds, so every now and then, you’ll hear me sneaking in that stealthy reminder for them to “don’t talk with their mouth full” and “please don’t smack” and “seriously, don’t inhale your food.”

I have to admit, though, that I used to envision this nice little quiet family dinner around a table of sweet conversation and delicious food that the kids wouldn’t even think of complaining about.

That fantasy left me years ago.

The one thing I can count on when my family sits down to dinner is my kids complaining about what’s on the menu before they’ve even tried it. Doesn’t matter if it’s mashed potatoes drowned in butter or chicken browned in coconut oil, with a bit of celery seed and thyme sprinkled on top or (their favorite) sautéed asparagus, they’re going to complain. If I believed them, my kids wouldn’t like hamburgers, chicken soup, grilled cheese, breakfast for dinner or, especially, carrot chips.

It never fails that a kid will come traipsing into the house, after playing outside with his friends and working up an appetite as only boys can do, that he will sniff and say, “Something smells yummy,” walk over to the stove and, upon seeing what’s cooking, say, “Aw, man. I don’t like that,” to which I reply, “Welp. More for me,” because clearly I care what he thinks.

Once they taste what’s for dinner, there’s not really a problem, but those few minutes between dinner showing up and kids shoveling it in their mouths are quite a problem for now. If I thought blindfolds would work to combat the complaining, I’d invest in half a dozen. But then they’d just complain about the smells.

When we’re all seated at the table, with our plates full, at least three of the kids will ask to be excused so they can get some milk. It’s not a problem at all, so of course we say yes. They pour their milk and bring it back to the table, and, thirty seconds later, it’s all over the floor and table.

This happens just about every night. It doesn’t matter how long they’ve been practicing drinking milk in a cup, someone is going to spill. You might wonder why this happens with such amazing continuity. Well, we are eight people crammed at a table built for four. A new kitchen table is not in our budget, so we sit practically on top of each other, because we’re a family that loves. Every now and then our boys will ask why we can’t use the dining room table, which was built for at least six people. We give some lame excuse about how it’s a glass table and we don’t feel like cleaning up all the fingerprints boys will paint on it when they use its underside as a napkin, even though they have a perfectly good napkin sitting beside their plate. I’d just rather not know what happens underneath a table.

There is also such thing as a Thermos, which would eliminate the possibility of such frequent milk spills. But let me tell you what happens to Thermoses in our world.

1. Boy pours milk.
2. Boy puts lid on Thermos.
3. Boy drinks most of the milk, but not all.
4. Boy “loses” the Thermos somewhere between end-of-dinner and after-dinner chores.
5. Parents find missing Thermos six weeks later.
6. No one wants to open it.

I’ll take milk spills over curdled milk any day.

Next on the list for the perfect family dinner is getting up and down from the table. My boys remember to ask to be excused about once out of four times. It’s still a mystery to me how they’re sitting there eating a bowl of spaghetti squash, and they suddenly remember this flower drawing they did in art class today, and they have to show me, right now, or they’re going to die. Or, two minutes after dinner begins, they realize they need to go potty. Or, ten minutes after dinner begins, one of their friends rings the doorbell, because they apparently think we can eat dinner in ten minutes.

They get up to see what their brother just laughed out his nose. They get up to grab the food they just dropped on the floor. They get up just to get up.

When they finally sit down long enough to actually have a conversation, everybody’s yelling. This happens because the boys are trying to tell us about their days, and no one’s taking turns with the talking, so they think if they just talk louder maybe they’ll have a better chance of getting heard.

This is the time of dinner when I usually reach my system overload and start talking like a robot, repeating the words, “System overload. System overload. System overload” until everyone looks at me like I’m crazy, because, well, I am. But it works. The table grows silent, everyone wondering how close Mama is to meltdown mode. And because of this, we can finally take turns asking about each of their days and get a portion of the story, before one brother interrupts another with something they forgot to say during their turn. It doesn’t take long for the talking to turn back into yelling, but by then there’s no more food left anyway. Dinner’s over.

At some point during the dinner, someone will make a potty joke. This is one other characteristic of dinner I can always count on. Someone will fart and send the whole table into peals of laughter and then “Oh my gosh, it smells so bad” proclamations. Someone will burp and crack everybody up again. Someone will arm fart “The Star-Spangled Banner” while the rest of us watch, mesmerized. Someone will tell a joke that contains the words, “poop,” “pee” and “armpits” in the same sentence. They think it’s the most hilarious thing in the world, and sometimes you do, too — until they start talking about vomit.

That’s when I like to say, “We’re eating, guys. Please don’t mess up this broccoli cheese soup for me.” Because, you know, it wasn’t hard enough to get them to eat it in the first place. Now every time they look at it, they’ll see vomit. Challenge accepted.

Whoever has the sweeping chore for the week always has quite a job to look forward to after dinner. This is mostly due to the 14-month-old, who has a proficient mastery of identifying the color green and eliminating it from his tray. But the 4-year-olds aren’t all that great either, stuffing green beans under their booster seats, except they aren’t great at aiming, either, so it ends up in a pile under the table. We don’t have a dog, so all this food — which could probably feed a small country — mostly goes to waste. It really is a shame.

Every night, when we finish dinner, I find myself wondering whether I really live with a pack of raccoons disguised as good-looking little boys. I’m just glad I don’t have to sweep the floor anymore.

And the last thing I can always count on, no matter the day or what’s for dinner or how much we had to eat, is my 4-year-old twins saying they’re still hungry — because four bowls of chicken noodle soup was not enough for a 40-pound kid. They will eat their body weight in pizza and still say they’re hungry when it’s all said and done.

All in all, even with the noisy, disgusting, messy displays of my children, family dinners are my favorite part of the day. Mostly because I enjoy eating. But also because I enjoy sitting together and laughing together and talking together about whatever it is that makes my boys laugh or cry or smile or scowl or feel glad to be a part of an amazing family.

And those nights when they end dinner saying, “This was the best dinner ever”? I call that winning.

Hasn’t happened yet. But I’m sure it’s right around the corner.

A version of this essay first appeared on Crash Test Parents. Follow Rachel onTwitter and Facebook.


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Rachel Toalson
Rachel is a writer, poet, editor and musician who is raising six boys to love books and poetry and music and art and the wild outdoors—all the best bits of life. She shares her parenting articles at Crash Test Parents. She blogs on life and love and family on her web site. She co-hosts the podcast In the Boat With Ben, sharing wisdom about intentional parenting and the pursuit of a creative career.