You might be wondering if that’s a typo. Isn’t that, like, Public Enemy Number One for someone who’s made a “career” (I use the term loosely) writing about family dinner?
Well, yes. Sort of. But mostly no. I love many things about well-worn family traditions, but here’s something I love the most: When you establish spend night after night faithfully sticking to the script (as we do with family dinner), in my book, you earn the right to completely break with tradition and revel in it.
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Yes, rituals like eating together are psychologically grounding and offer important bonding opportunities with the kids and blah blah blah. But busting out of the routine and eating a meal with your fingers while watching your home team battle through the playoffs, or Katie Ledecky crush the best swimmers in the world by two miles, or two candidates butt heads over immigration reform in an ulcer-inducing Presidential Debate? Now, that’s just plain fun. (Well, most of it is, anyway.)
I know it’s not breaking news to say that it can be extremely gratifying to witness something huge and exciting, to feel like you’re part of something that the whole city, the whole country, or the whole globe is into—whether it’s the World Cup or Election Night or the Super Bowl or the Olympics.
But when we became parents, it somehow became crucial for us to impart this universal wisdom to our two daughters. Especially since, thanks to DVRs and On Demand, and a little thing called the internet, the world they were born into offers so few big events that can be enjoyed in real time in that kind of Big World Communal Way.
When I was a kid, Charlotte’s Web was on TV once a summer, and the night it aired, the streets were empty: We were all at home parked in front of the TV eating our Chef Boyardee dinners, singing along with Templeton. When I watched Borg sink to his knees after beating McEnroe in the 1980 Wimbledon finals, I was in my neighbor’s living room jumping up and down alongside all the kids on the block.
When I watched Christian Laettner nail the game-winning shot at the buzzer to take the 1992 NCAAs, I was eating calzones with about two hundred college classmates in the basement of an old frat house. When I watched the series finales of Cheers and Seinfeld, it felt like I was watching with the entire Western Hemisphere, and we were all somehow connected for those brief thirty minutes.
I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t feel that way had I watched any of these things through the Netflix app on my iPad, during my commute home, headphones on, a few weeks after the fact.
So when Big World Events come along, I have no problem whatsoever moving the meal to the TV room, no problem whatsoever staring at the screen instead of at each other. In fact, I look forward to it. The trick, of course, is to decide what televised event is important enough to merit this kind of status. That hilarious episode when Patrick babysits SpongeBob’s pet snail Gary? No.
The SpongeBob Halloween Special? Maybe!
A DVR’d EPL game of Tottenham vs. Manchester United: No.
Live World Cup or Olympics or other major sporting event that happens once every four years? Hell yes!
The other trick is to cook the right kind of dinner. One-bowl recipes that require only a single utensil—chicken and rice, stir-fries—are always going to be a good idea. So will pastas. But as far as I’m concerned, the meals that say Big Exciting Event the loudest in our house are subs, nachos, pizza, or any dish that calls for fingers and fingers only. The way I see it, if you’re going to break one rule, you might as well break them all.
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).