Family dinners were painful after the divorce—but then I realized we needed them

"I just want a little more," said my 13-year-old as she reached for a third plate of pasta.

I had no idea where my long-legged teenager was putting it all. I couldn't remember the last time I saw her eat this much. It was a simple dinner with herbs from the garden in a little olive oil, topped with freshly grated parmesan cheese. I cut some bread and spread on a mixture of butter and fresh minced garlic then toasted it until it was perfectly browned. It took all of 15 minutes to throw together.

"I love it when you cook," she said to me.

It seemed to be an absurd statement at first. After all, I love to cook. In fact, until that moment I would have said I cooked a lot. But the longing tone in her voice gave me pause.

That's when it hit me—I used to cook a lot. Used to, as in, before the divorce. When my husband left me, our family dinners were suddenly a painful reminder of what our family used to be.

Every time we sat down I couldn't help feeling like we were missing something. An empty chair sat where 'he' used to sit. Leftovers lasted for days because I had again prepared too much. Both were subtle signs of how our lives were changing.

I didn't need any more reminders. I was single-handedly disproving the research that shows regular family dinners result in higher self-esteem, a greater sense of resilience and a lower risk of depression.

So I diverted the sadness with fun trips out to restaurants or brushed off the idea of dinner with a frozen pizza. Back then, eating in front of the TV was a wild and crazy moment my daughter had never been able to experience. That was two years ago. I didn't even realize it had become normal. A simple pleasure I had loved so much had become scary and overwhelming.

I grew up the oldest of six kids. In our house, family dinner wasn't reserved for Sundays. It was a regular part of our routine. My parents made it clear it was important for our busy family to sit down together to catch up on what was going on and what was coming up.

That's where my love of cooking began. A home-cooked meal from Mom was most often a casserole, meatloaf, lasagna or anything that could feed a crowd. She served the food lovingly as if it was our gift after a long day. Oftentimes we would talk to her in the kitchen while she cooked.

When we sat down at the table we weren't allowed to rush through it. Real connection takes time. Somehow no matter what was going on in our lives, that home-cooked meal was the great unifier. To this day, cooking is one of my favorite ways to show my love.

The next night I decided to make fish tacos with homemade guacamole. The conversation between my daughter and I wasn't much different than when we go out to eat, full of stories and laughter. But my daughter was different.

She loves to cook too and was happy to help cut up tomatoes while I sautéed peppers of every color. She talked non-stop about the drama of the day while I sipped on a glass of wine and searched through my spice cabinet to find the perfect combination for the fish. I felt the familiar but long lost joy of pouring my heart into a meal.

As it turns out, I have learned how to cook for just two. I had the perfect amount of leftovers for lunch the next day.

Family dinner doesn't look the way I experienced it most of my life anymore. But that's okay. I think it is time to reinstate the tradition of family dinner at our house because you know what? I love it when I cook too.



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