When I was growing up, the most important part of our day was family dinner in the evening. Because of soccer practices, track meets and extended work hours, we never had a set start-time, but we always gathered together at the table eventually. Mom and Dad sat beside each other, my sisters and I completed the round and we simply broke bread.
Now, as a mom with my own crew, I marvel at the family dinners of yesterday. Pulled in so many directions at any given moment, it is a very real challenge just to get me, my husband, and my kids in the same room at the same time. Sharing a meal together – at any time of day – requires thoughtful coordination and some serious creativity too.
More and more often, the place where we gather the most is…the family car. It’s a far cry from the kitchen table in my childhood home, but it can get the job done. In fact, I’ve learned to embrace the reality that our car is the new family dinner table – it allows for us to share the most important parts of our days and that’s what matters to me.
The food piece of this equation can be tricky, though. With miles and miles of practice under my belt, here are my best tips for creating memorable moments during mobile mealtimes.
Often the on-the-go meals creep up on you, or they’re decided at the last minute. So, just like a good scout, always be prepared! Keep a backpack or a bin in the car with more than enough paper plates, napkins, hand sanitizers and disposable grocery bags.
Make sure everyone in the car washes his or her hands before any snack or meal, and designate one specific bag as garbage from that point on. Give each person old enough to handle one a job and dole out supplies before you divvy up the food. Be sure to stock things like water bottles, resealable plastic bags for leftovers and laundry stain sticks in case of a spills too.
Turn off the Radio
One of my favorite things about family dinner is how it presents the opportunity for everybody’s personality to shine. At suppertime, the kids know that they have our undivided attention. In the car, that means the radio, the screens and the earphones are OFF.
We start with questions to “go around the table” and take turns passing the baton throughout the car. Whomever needs to exit the car first gets to start the sharing, and he or she who has the most to tell usually wraps the exchange.
Even though the temptation is always there to pull up to a drive-through window, dinner in the car does not have to come from a restaurant. It really is possible to fill your family with yummy, healthy homemade meals when you’re on the run. The keys to success are each person’s two hands and everybody’s contributions.
Be sure to plan the homemade meal you’ll “serve” in the car around the hands that will be holding the meal. Utensils add unnecessary craziness. Use tortillas, sliced bread, tender lettuce and potato skins as the (edible) vessels that deliver the food to the mouths.
Stack meatloaf sandwiches instead of meatloaf platters and stuff barbecued meat burritos with all the pulled pork-coleslaw-potato fixings that would fill a platter. Or, make baked potatoes. Slice them in half, remove the tender centers, mash them into scrambled eggs, crumbled bacon, fresh herbs, and finely chopped broccoli, and return it all to the potato skins to bake once more until the eggs are cooked. Boom! Dinner.
Feed Them Family Style
Pass food when you’re not in motion. Put everyone to work with the job he or she was assigned (napkin duty, trash pick-up, etc.) and move the food through the car in the same way you move it around the traditional table. Expect everyone to work together – and they will.
Save Dessert for Home
Just do it. No matter how late it is before you’re all together again. When the practices have wrapped and the shops have closed, meet back at home and gather in your jammies for a sweet treat before bedtime. It’s the ultimate way to punctuate a crazy day.
Life is crazy, no doubt about it. Every person – and personality! – added to the mix makes getting together so much more challenging. And, at the same time, more important than ever. At the table or at the wheel, we make family dinner happen. And it’s always delicious.