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Credit: Subin Yang

This Alternative to Family Dinner Is Easier and Way More Fun

published Apr 21, 2021
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We all know the drill: We should be having dinner with our families. That time together, we’re told, is key to unlocking everything from healthy family relationships to, well, health. As a childfree, busy food-and-spirits writer who made a big family change during the pandemic, I’ve thought a lot about this lately. 

Coming together for a meal when we can is important. I learned that over the last year when my husband and I became caregivers for our teen niece, who moved in with us. Dinnertime is when she can catch us up on school and happenings in a more casual way than the “family meetings” I envisioned when she first joined our household. When we’d gone too long without a sit-down dinner together and realized we hadn’t caught up in a few days, she even mentioned how helpful dinnertime can be on that front. Family text threads can only do so much!

But look, even (especially?) when many of us are working from home, and the kitchen or dining table is also our office, and lines between job and home have further eroded, it hasn’t exactly gotten easier to plan and prepare a proper Family Dinner. Also? The longer the pandemic has dragged on, the harder it has gotten some days to muster up the energy to make a decision about what to have, let alone prepare it.

But! That doesn’t mean the benefits of coming together with your family over bites and drinks are out of reach.

Credit: Dana McMahan

So what’s the alternative to family dinner?

Cubby’s Managing Editor, Thao Thai, recently stumbled into a way more relaxed tradition with her family, starring drinks and assorted nibbles, and I’m here to tell you that family happy hour is where it’s at. Until I became a caregiver — even of an older teen, who helps out with meals — I didn’t fully appreciate the emotional labor that goes into getting dinner on the table every day.

Because we need all the fun we can get right now. 

Call it whatever you like — we’re not trying to make this a boozy affair. Besides, it’s time we open happy hour to include everyone, not just those of us tossing back over-the-top cocktails at a bar. Thao’s 4-year-old calls it Cheese and Cracker Time (which, adorable!), but we could borrow from our friends in Italy and call it aperitivo, or apéro, like the French, or hey, even tea time. The name isn’t what matters. What matters is that this end-of-day family gathering is a flexible alternative to a structured family dinner, where table manner mandates and cleaning-the-plate requirements may have the potential to stamp out fun. Because we need all the fun we can get right now. 

Credit: Dana McMahan

What to Eat for Family Happy Hour

Dana Bowen, parent to a teen, and co-founder of online cooking school The Dynamite Shop, says these family happy hours can be a great way to give new life to leftovers — and get kids involved in mealtime. Thao agrees. 

“It’s very easy for my daughter to go to the pantry and pick out her favorite snack,” she says. ”She’ll pull out her Teddy Grahams and favorite brand of cheese puffs and then we’ll get her a little apple juice or some milk.” For the grown-ups, “we’ll get a bunch of things from the freezer, heat them up, and throw them on a plate.” This approach comes with the fortunate side effect that having “a handful of small plates versus one big thing makes it much more likely that my daughter will actually try new things, because there’s no pressure.”

This evolution to a casual, all-hands-on-deck approach makes sense. “Things just look a lot different than they did in the 1950s,” Thao says. “When you imagine, you know, June Cleaver setting down a big plate of meatloaf.”

Give me Dana’s take on dinnertime over that any day, with an entire meal of bruschetta. “So it’s just grilling bread,” she begins, “and rubbing it down with a little bit of garlic, drizzling it with olive oil and good flaky salt. And then, topping it with different things that you pulled together. So it might just be some chopped tomatoes and basil and mozzarella, but it might also be something like romesco sauce that you make with roasted red peppers, walnuts, and garlic; or again it might be a little bit of leftovers, reimagined with fresh herbs.” Kids of any age can find a role (and enjoyment) in a meal like that, from drizzling the olive oil to chopping the tomatoes.

To set up your kitchen for easy happy hour, “there are some really simple things that people could do to stock their fridge and pantry,” Dana says. Think: anchovies or sardines or other canned fish, “all of the pickles,” marinated goodies, condiments, chutneys. “Another thing that we do a lot in our family,” she describes, “is pull together platters with different things [like] charcuterie, chorizo, those marinated artichokes and olives, and bits and bobs of cheese; and then a side salad. It’s totally casual and so much more conducive to conversation, because it feels like something that you would have for happy hour.”

Credit: Meghan Splawn

What to Drink for Family Hour Hour

On the libations front, there could be cocktails or alcohol-free shrubs or fun fizzy waters for the adults, and at Thao’s home, a camp-out on the living room floor, maybe with a friend joining via Zoom. If the weather’s nice, they might convene on the deck with a socially distanced visit with friends. Whatever it looks like, it’s a celebration. 

As mealtime should be. 

The connotation of happy hour is that mealtime should be joyful, and it should be fun.

“The connotation of happy hour is that mealtime should be joyful, and it should be fun,” Dana says. “No one likes the idea of a formal dinner where there’s no laughing or sharing real conversation.”

There’s a reason restaurants latched onto the happy hour label, she says, “because who doesn’t want to be happy?”

The term has come to be synonymous with a booze-fueled hour (or evening), but you can reject that and choose your own adventure here, skipping the alcohol altogether. If you opt to incorporate adult beverages, we can look to cultures that have a healthy balance of combining alcohol with food for inspiration.  

“I lived in Italy for a while,” Dana reminisces, and one of her favorite things about life there was aperitivo, “essentially the Italian happy hour.” People may go outside and it’s a chance to see neighbors and friends and come together for a light alcoholic drink like a spritz. But the emphasis is on the conversation and on the food. It doesn’t hurt that “the bars in Italy lay out the most fantastic aperitivo spread, with delicious noshers like fried olives and bits of cheese.”

If you do make alcohol part of the occasion, it can be a chance to model responsible and moderate consumption to younger family members. With a teen in my house approaching graduation, I’ve wanted to set her up to avoid mistakes I made; to wit, bourbon isn’t for shooting, but for sipping and savoring. That doesn’t happen by wagging my finger and telling her not to do what I did (too many shots my freshman year one night that left me revolted by bourbon for years). 

So it’s not at all unusual for her to be part of an evening where we’ll munch on snacks and the adults will try a couple of new whiskeys (a perk of writing about spirits is the special deliveries that land on my porch with pleasing regularity!) and nerd out over the color, flavor, and aroma of the products. It’s a chill time to unwind at the end of the day, and will hopefully instill some appreciation for spirits that I lacked as a young adult!

Why Family Happy Hour Is Here to Stay

At the end of the day (sorry, couldn’t resist), family happy hour is what you want it to be. It’s easy, flexible, fun, and inclusive. It gets kids in the kitchen, learning not just cooking techniques, but also lessons that will serve them well the rest of their life — like how to take a few things from the fridge and transform them into an easy frittata. After all, Dana says, “Getting creative with what you have ultimately is what makes a great cook.” Children also learn the art of conversation, staying present, and even hospitality.

Life lessons aside: “What I like most about the term family happy hour is that it does shine a light on the the most important parts of the meal,” Dana describes, “which is family and happiness. Whatever kind of cooking gets you there is a good thing for sure, even if it’s not cooking at all.” And we can all raise a toast to that.

Credit: Greg Davis; Food Styling: Josh Gandee

Some Recipes to Get You Started

Things to Sip

Things to Nibble