Gather: The Thing About Weekly Family Dinner
Author: Bo Stern | www.sheology.co | @bolovesjoe
For lots of years, none of us actually remembers how many now, I have hosted a weekly dinner for all of my family. Every Sunday, we meet to eat, talk, laugh, argue, dance, sing spontaneous-but-highly-nuanced songs about current events and, sometimes, cry and hope and pray.
It’s been life to me in ways I couldn’t begin to fit into this little space. Throughout the years, we’ve entertained friends and love interests, added two family members, lost one really important family member. In the course of family dinner, my people have gotten jobs, lost jobs, graduated, finished cool projects, scrapped others and just generally lived the developing lives for which they were born. I’ve found that this one connection point in the week is enough for me to feel that I’m updated and in touch with all my kids and their respective happy/sad/romantic/vocational/theological issues. We currently meet at a restaurant on Sunday nights instead of at my home for reasons that would not be interesting to you, but make a lot of sense to us. Bottom line: We’ve tried to keep it fluid and fun, while also prioritizing the time together, knowing it keeps us close and our relationships strong.
So, plenty has changed for us as our family has grown, but there are a few constants that I think are important for creating a healthy and sustainable family dinner or sunday supper or Friends’ Friday or whatever you choose to do.
Stay consistent, but not inflexible. The rule at my dinner is: You’re always welcome, but never obligated. Nothing makes people resent an event more than being made to feel guilty when they can’t make it.
Do what works. I love to do most of the cooking, but for some people that would be a dealbreaker. If you don’t love cooking, you can assign out dishes or you can bring in takeout or you can host a BYOD (bring your own dinner.) (Fun story: I did that one night when I had just gotten home from a weekend of speaking and didn’t want to cook, but REALLY wanted to be with my family. I texted them and said BYODinner - and one by one, they showed up with…tacos. And so did I. We had all inadvertently bought the very same dinner and it was the most fun.)
Manage your expectations. Sometimes, in spite of having been together 18 times before, the conversation won’t flow well. Sometimes people will disagree and it will be tense. Sometimes a collective bad mood or weariness will hang over the group and everyone will leave as soon as dinner is done. Try to be gracious about these nights, knowing that at other times, it will be magical from the get-go. There will be times when two people who don’t always get along have a moment of sparkling unity that creates a new level of companionship. Moments you’ll feel like the luckiest mom, girlfriend, spouse, daughter, sister in the world because THESE ARE YOUR PEOPLE, DARN IT, AND THEY. ARE. AWESOME! Be generous with yourself and keep your expectations reasonable.
Find help when you need it (because you don’t have to be good at everything.) Conversations not flowing as you’d like? Invest in Table Topics. Too much cleanup at the end? Simplify your menus or assign kitchen responsibilities to the group (thank you, Casey Parnell, for loading the dishwasher without being asked about a million times over the past ten years.) Running out of good ideas for dinner? Check The Feed Feed, or The Modern Proper, Half Baked Harvest.
To get you started, I give you: My family’s very favorite fall dinner.
Beef Bourignon is delicious and it’s actually harder to pronounce the name than it is to make. You just need a dutch oven and a bunch of hours for it to cook, low and slow. Bonus: I promise your kitchen will smell like a cute little French restaurant.
French food deserves a really good, crusty bread. This is my FAVORITE recipe of all time for Dutch Oven Bread. You can prepare this in five minutes the night before and bake it the day of - it could not be easier or more delicious.
In conclusion, to paraphrase Martin Luther: When is the best time to start a weekly dinner? Five years ago. When is the second best time? Today.