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My Dueling Dinnertimes

To introduce Real Simple’s new sanity-saving program, managing editor Kristin van Ogtrop shares her own struggles with that loud and disorderly nightly ritual otherwise known as dinner.

By Kristin van Ogtrop
Illustration of mother overseeing chaotic dinner table scene with 3 sonsJoe Ciardiello

A few months back, Real Simple launched its first ever Take Back Dinnertime campaign—basically a life raft for the millions of American families who find the hours between 5 P.M. and 8 P.M. to be painful, difficult, and generally undesirable. On RealSimple.com, we asked you to tell us about your dinnertime challenges, and, boy, did we get an earful, from more than a thousand of you.

Just as we all have different household dynamics, we all face different dinnertime challenges. You might think, because I have three active boys in the house, that my issue would be scheduling. And it is, to some extent. But, really, my problems all start with a trick fork.

First let me point out that the trick fork—which has an extendable handle—does not figure in my imaginary family dinner. In my imaginary dinner, my family of five (me, adoring husband, three calm, cooperative boys) sits down together every night to share stories from school and work; to take stock of the day and ourselves; to give thanks for the food, good fortune, and connection we all share. And absolutely no one is trying to steal food from someone else’s plate clear across the table, because no one has a trick fork with an extendable handle.

In my real-life family dinner, the trick fork (which I gave to one of my children a few Christmases ago in a moment of parental insanity) figures prominently. It also represents a number of concepts that boys find irresistible: disruption, power struggles, stealth attacks, slightly sadistic supremacy over your fellow man/your sibling/any unsuspecting fool. And so chaos reigns supreme.

Still, I can’t shake the imaginary family-dinner fantasy, a vaguely 1960s-sitcom notion in which family members politely take turns talking, sitting straight in their chairs, napkins folded in laps, all four food groups nestled snugly on shiny, clean plates, nary a smartphone in sight.

Is it really true that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results? If so, I am finally sane (or old) enough to realize that when my 16-year-old tips back dangerously in his chair, he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. That my 13-year-old will never love any food more than he loves cheeseburgers. And that my four-year-old will stop at nothing, including stripping, to make his brothers laugh while they are eating. I know that boys generally do not like to share stories from their days unless they involve bloodshed, silly teacher behavior, or someone getting kicked out of school. And so I learn to manage my expectations.

I could get rid of the trick fork and the chairs that tip back. I could refuse to serve cheeseburgers ever again. I could make my kids fold their napkins in their laps and insist that we discuss Significant Current Events every night. I could try to force my family of five into having something that resembles my imaginary dinner: one of tranquility, maturity, sanity. But where is the fun in that?

I am finally old (or sane) enough to realize that the imaginary dinner will one day come—of course it will. My children will be thoughtful adults. There will be no half-naked four-year-olds scrambling across my lap as I’m trying to eat; in fact, all chaos will be gone. The trick fork will have been lost or taken away to college or given to a younger friend. And despite what I thought I wanted, I will genuinely miss it.


How "Take Back Dinnertime" Can Help You

Check out the Take Back Dinnertime Challenge to get mealtime tips, recipes, and ideas. Plus, meet the four lucky people who won complete dinnertime makeovers.

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