- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 13, 2008

If it’s 9 p.m. Tuesday, it must be time for dinner. Now if only I had thought to get to the grocery store earlier in the day. Sigh.

The dinnertime challenge around our house isn’t just figuring out what to feed the troops — although that’s certainly part of it. I have teenagers who still think it’s “yucky” to eat tomatoes.

No, like most families, our challenge is to manage our respective schedules in such a way that we’re all in the house and hungry at the time I coincidentally serve a hot meal.

Some parents plan ahead to accommodate inconvenient weekday dinners for the family. They use slow cookers and draw up weekly menus. They cook on Saturday and freeze for the week ahead. They buy in bulk or use those storefront kitchen services to do their prep work.

I realized last week while trying to get dinner on the table before the late local news that I employ a combination of spontaneity and serendipity in an unorganized but well-intentioned effort to get us fed. Our menus might be a bit unusual, but who says you can’t put a pork chop in a tortilla?

Most of us have seen the overwhelmingly positive statistics confirming the benefits to children of regular family meals. Not only do these children do better in school, score better on standardized tests and exhibit fewer risky adolescent behaviors, but families that eat meals together also consume more vegetables and use better vocabulary than those who don’t.

Makes you wonder why we have government programs to improve school success. We should just send everyone home for dinner.

Adding to the challenge of assembling the clan and pulling together an entree that may or may not include cream of mushroom soup is what I consider the most crucial aspect of mealtime: dinner table conversation.

Not that the members of my family don’t talk to one another. On the contrary, we’re a very loquacious group. So much so that even my fifth-grader knows what loquacious means. In fact, we’re likely to have more than one conversation going at a time, which may be part of our problem.

Most of our table talk is informational, educational or motivational. Which is to say, I use the time around the table to go over the schedule for the days ahead, learn about the goings-on at school, or nag people about table manners or putting away laundry or the pile of shoes by the back door. (Chewy pot roast equals captive audience.)

We also use family mealtime to talk about current events, although lately the conversations inspired by the headlines have been a bit dicey, especially if you have children with a range of ages. It’s tough to find news you can discuss with both a fifth-grader and a high school junior.

Recently, in order to get us off the topic of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s text message scandal and the recent surge in arrests relating to the “world’s oldest profession,” I instead stupidly brought up the incredible story of a group of third-graders in South Georgia who plotted to attack their teacher.

My husband and I had both read the story in the paper, but since our children had missed it, I related the account of the 8- to 10-year-olds who organized themselves in what appeared to be a fairly elaborate “group project,” albeit one with a devious educational goal: To render their teacher unconscious, bind her with handcuffs and duct tape, and then assault her with a steak knife.

Well, my bad, to use the vernacular. This news story caused Amy, my 10-year-old, to burst into tears.

I’m hoping the benefits of eating together as a family outweigh the emotional scars of eating together as a family, but only time will tell. In the meantime, I have decided to recommit myself to the whole notion of dinnertime, starting with an assessment of our weekly schedules and a trip to the grocery store (there’s a sale on cream of mushroom soup).

As for topics for dinner table conversation, note to self: Don’t forget to read the sports page.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 20 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She is the author of “The Perfect World Inside My Minivan One Mom’s Journey Through the Streets of Suburbia,” a compilation of her columns. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybeth hicks.com) or send e-mail to marybeth.hicks@comcast.net.

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