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Eat Separate Meals Together

Relieve the pressure of having to think of family-style meals seven nights a week 

Bowl of chickpea and sweet potato stew in a white bowl. Shutterstock
Nick Mancall-Bitel is an editor at Eater overseeing travel coverage and the international maps program.

This post originally appeared in the May 11, 2020 edition of The Move, a place for Eater’s editors to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.

Every day, right around the time lunch is wrapping up, someone in my family asks, “So, what’s for dinner?” The question has taken on a lot of weight lately. Every decision to source sustenance, whether it’s delivery from a restaurant or a grocery run, requires real forethought. Plus, my fiancee and I aren’t accustomed to eating with my parents, with whom we’re living for the duration of the crisis, so picking a meal requires a lot of negotiation between hungry people with contradictory dietary habits. The question often goes unanswered at first, as each cohabitant passes the buck: It could more accurately be phrased as, “What’s someone else making for dinner?”

Cooking for the group, whether it’s a family or a gaggle of roomies, usually falls on one or two people. The chosen arbiter finds out what each individual wants, negotiates common ground between those inclinations, maybe sources ingredients from an overstuffed pantry or excess storage in the garage, and whips up a family-style meal for everyone. This is great about once a week, when tastes align and inspiration takes hold of the chef. It’s okay about five times a week. It’s tiring, time-consuming, and annoying that last day, but on these days, when the cooking gods seem angry and the world is tilting off its axis, remember this simple fact: You don’t all have to eat the same thing.

My family’s recurring Move of late is to sit down at the table together and enjoy each other’s company, but eat separate meals. This method works best with low-lift foods — reheated leftovers, microwaved mac and cheese, sandwiches — so everyone can stumble into the kitchen and have something to eat in a few minutes. On a recent evening, for example, my fiancee drizzled tahini over a sweet potato bowl, my father pan-seared salmon for the fifth time in a week, my mother put a hot dog in a tortilla with mustard and called it a day, and I enjoyed leftovers of #TheStew. It’s a release valve for the stress that builds up over many weeknights of planned meals, allowing everyone to indulge in their own comfort food (and sample from each other’s plates on occasion). It not only satisfies diverse tastes, but keeps the peace too.

I recognize that I’m lucky to have company rather than isolating alone, and I’m thankful that I’m not yet responsible for the nutrition of picky offspring. Still, everyone eating whatever they want is particularly effective if you, like I, suddenly find your diet disrupted by quarantines with family or other unusual roommates.

It’s also emblematic of what’s missing from a life without restaurants. Beyond the vibes, the room, and the food that’s impossible to replicate at home, restaurants provide the opportunity to choose a meal regardless of what others want. Unless you’re enjoying a tasting menu or family-style feast, you wouldn’t expect a restaurant to require you to order the same thing as your neighbor. It’s a basic tenet of hospitality that’s easily adopted at home, and one I just as easily forget. It’s a thing I miss that I don’t need to.

I enjoy cooking immensely, even in a crisis, and I often don’t mind doing so for others. But I also look forward to the evenings when I can pour myself a bowl of Lucky Charms and grab a glass of whatever wine is open, when everyone else is cool doing the same thing. Cooking is self-care. Sometimes, so is not cooking — and it’s nice not to have to choose between self-preservation and the group hang. Like countless screen time-shaming PSAs will tell you, it’s important to come together over dinner to talk and bond and argue and joke, even if you don’t agree on what to eat.

Then the only thing left to decide is who does the dishes.