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What's the Point of Family Dinner without the Whole Family?

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We've all heard that family dinner is important.

Groan, groan.

We've heard that somewhere in the flurry of the week, in the approximately 1.5 hours between everyone getting home, finishing homework and getting ready for bed, good parents will plan and cook a nutritious meal.

And then good parents will gather the herd around the (lovingly set) table and gaze warmly at those (well-mannered) offspring as they (uncomplainingly) eat that nutritious meal while regaling their parents with (interesting) stories of their day and listening (interestedly) to everyone else.

Before clearing the table and doing the dishes harmoniously, the whole family will (politely and intelligently) debate politics and discuss current events, Kennedy family-style.

Because some of us are raising future ambassadors and presidents, right?

And then good parents are supposed to do it all again tomorrow, or at least three times a week. That's what the parenting gods up on Mount Olympus have ordered, and failing to do so could mean that our kids end up on Maury Povich or, worse, as Instagram stars.

So we try, and we fail, and we beat ourselves up for failing, and then we try again, and we fail again, and beat ourselves up for failing again. Because Einstein said the definition of insanity was what? Anyway.

As a Must-Have Parent, my table often has a empty seat. Deployments, training, schools and other travel mean that my husband misses a lot of dinners. Pushing for so-called "family time" seems even more daunting when, with mandated less-than-perfect family attendance, there is absolutely no way we can hit that target.

Confession time: When my husband is away, our family dinners often slack off. Sort of. By the time I get a meal on the table, I'm often exhausted and, adorable as they are, conversation with my children is not always stimulating for me.

But here's the good news: Our family dinners rarely slack off in the way that the experts say matters the most. As it turns out, the biggest benefit in family dinners is not in the "dinners" but in the "family."

When my husband isn't home for dinner, the temptation to turn on the TV and let everyone zone out while we eat is strong, and sometimes I give in to that temptation.

Also?

Sometimes we eat pizza.

Actually, that happens a lot -- a ridiculous, disgusting amount of times.

And sometimes when I'm so spent after the events of the day and the children are so not spent, and their rapid fire of trivia and tattling is overwhelming, and there's not another adult around to help and entertain me, I've been known to lull the kids into quiet by reading a book to them while they eat. Because someone, probably up there on Mount Olympus, also said we're supposed to read to them for 20 minutes a day. So -- multitasking, people.

The crevasse between what I'm supposed to do as a parent and what I actually do as a parent is sometimes so wide that I'd need to hang glide to get from one side to another.

And that is OK.

It's OK because sometimes the side of the crevasse I'm already on is actually quite lovely and hang gliding requires skill and energy I don't have.

All of that, all of my shortcomings, they're totally fine. Maybe not from a nutritional standpoint but, once again, the biggest benefit in family dinners is not in the nutrition nor in the Kennedy-style discussions. And the Kennedy dinners? They sound more like Model U.N. prep than opportunities for bonding.

The real benefit in family dinners, no matter which members are present or absent, is in just seeing each other's faces and feeling that sense of tribe, knowing that these are our people and we're walking through this world together.

That's it, and that can be done in a restaurant. It can be done with takeout, frozen pizzas or "brinner" (that's breakfast for dinner in my house). We eat a lot of brinners during deployments.

It can be done as the kids and I watch "Big Cat Diaries" and take in the lions having their dinner while we eat ours (don't judge) or as I read a book aloud. It can even be done as we all sit in absolute silence because someone thought dancing on the table was appropriate and everyone else threw spaghetti at her. Hypothetically speaking.

And who knows? Maybe that happened at the Kennedy house, too. If so, my money is on Teddy as the table dancer.

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Contributor

Rebekah Sanderlin is an Army wife, a mother of three and a professional writer. Her work has been published numerous places, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, National Public Radio, CNN, and in Self and Maxim magazines. She currently serves on the advisory boards of the Military Family Advisory Network and Blue Star Families.

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