French flair solves an American dinner problem

It's 7 p.m. and my husband, Jim, is late coming home from work. In past years, our sons - Ben, who's 18, and Evan, 12 - and I would have eaten dinner without him and felt disappointed at another evening apart. No more! With a little French flair, we have found a way to bring our family back together for meals.

Thirty years ago, Corine, who's French, lived with my family during my junior year in high school. We considered ourselves sisters, and our sisterly bond grew stronger over the years.She now lives with her family in the Haute Savoie region of France.

"When can we visit her?" Evan had asked me repeatedly over the past year. It didn't take much to talk me into a possible visit to France, so I e-mailed her with our thoughts.

"Of course you can visit!" Corine e-mailed back. Evan and i were delighted.

The best part of the trip was being able to live with Corine; her husband, Jean-Luc; their daughter, Severine; and son, Fabien. Both Evan and I became keen observers of their family and cultural traditions. An everyday ritual was to have goûter (pronounced goo-tay), a snack or a little bit to eat in the late afternoon.

We were used to having an after-school snack, so how did goûter differ?

"When we each get home from school or work, we sit down and have cheese, bread, yogurt, or fruit to tide us over until dinner," Corine explained.

We noticed that chips, crackers, and junk food weren't part of their goûter. In fact, there was no junk food in their kitchen. No soda pop, no candy. Their sweets were jam, honey, and Nutella (a hazelnut-chocolate spread). So goûter was truly a snack, a bit of food.

To me, the most surprising part was that my friend's family often ate goûter between 5 and 6 p.m. Wasn't that dinnertime? What about the American family rule of spoiling your appetite with a late-afternoon snack? Here was a family doing just that, breaking all the rules. On top of it all, they ate dinner at 8. Wouldn't that interfere with sleep habits, or homework?

After several weeks of living with Corine's family, these rituals felt comfortable to both Evan and me. I began to question the old rules, especially because they weren't working for our family and its schedules. If we had goûter later in the afternoon, we could eat dinner as a family more often, even if Jim came home late from work. Hmm ... food for thought, literally.

We've been home for two months now, and goûter has changed our family meals. When I check in with Jim via his cellphone and find that he will be late returning home, I just tell the boys to have goûter and that we'll be eating around 7 p.m.

Football practice, after-school jobs, and tutoring are not excuses for missing dinner together anymore. We eat later in the evening, but everyone is satisfied. And as it has turned out, there is still plenty of time for homework before and after dinner.

I have found that when we put our mealtime first, everything else falls into place. Even the most frightful day becomes bearable because we are a connected family for 30 minutes.

Now our dining room table is used for dining together many nights a week. Amazing! We are side by side, across from one another, looking into the eyes of those we love the most in this world. We have regained a part of our family life that had remained elusive for many years.

And to think that all it took was a trip to France!

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