When our first child was born, my husband and I made a pact: we would always try to have dinner together, as a family. We knew so many young families who served two dinners: one for the kids, and one later for the parents after the kids had gone to bed. Being early-to-bed/early-to-rise people, dinner at 8pm or later just would not work in our house.
It wasn’t always easy. Those early weeks with our first child often had one of us eating while the other bopped around, trying to sooth the colicky child crying in the sling or baby bjorn. As our family grew and the kids got older, eating together was pretty easy. Highchairs were soon replaced with booster chairs which gave way to everyone sitting in the same type of seat. And dinnertime was always promptly at 6pm. It just was (and still is)…no questions.
As our children get older I worry about activities starting to encroach on our dinnertime. But for now I will hold onto the time we have for as long as I can.
September is National Family Meals Month, a time to commit to eating one more meal together as a family. It’s not just about nutrition – though there’s evidence that suggests home-cooked meals are healthier. Eating together as a family is a time to reconnect, to talk about the day, to do some subtle homework help, and to model good eating behaviors. Regular family meals may also help boost performance in school and help kids stay off drugs.
The dinner hour can be stressful, especially if family members had a hard day or the meal served isn’t a favorite. But here are some tips to make family mealtime enjoyable for everyone:
- Take turns choosing the meal. This could mean macaroni and cheese one night and chicken curry another night. But giving everyone equal say in the meal decisions can help generate excitement.
- Get kids to help in the kitchen. Even the youngest children can play with measuring cups or arrange vegetables on a tray. As they get older you can have them do simple tasks like measuring and mixing, and later graduating to boiling water or carefully slicing ingredients. Getting them involved gives them a sense of pride on the outcome.
- Always serve something that each person would like with the meal. Not everyone in my house gets excited about Sloppy Joe’s night, but everyone will at least eat the bun and the carrot sticks. You never know when that bun may one day include a spoonful of Sloppy Joe meat.
- Don’t force eating. According to Ellyn Satter, the expert on child feeding, it’s the parents’ job to choose what, where, and when to eat. It’s the child’s job to choose if and how much to eat. Maybe the Sloppy Joe meat will go untouched 9 times out of 10. But maybe, after a while, the child might be motivated to try it. Or maybe one day he’ll like it and the next day it makes him turn his nose. Either way, be patient and don’t badger.
- Focus on the table. Even better, focus on the people at the table. Leave electronics turned off or in another room. Playing soft music is OK, but having the TV on as background noise is not. This is the time to truly connect with one another, without any outside distractions.
- Have reasonable expectations. Not every dinnertime is going to lead to earth-shattering conversations or behavior breakthroughs. Some days having conversations may be like pulling teeth (anyone with teenagers know what I’m talking about???). It’s OK if dinner is 15 minutes one night when most nights it’s about 30 minutes. Just being together is what counts.
As I’m writing this, I just remembered: Growing up, there were three of us kids and a single mom. Eating meals together didn’t always happen – that is, until my mom instituted “Ritual.” Ritual was one night every week that we committed to eating together at home, all four of us (or three, when my older sister went away to college). The day of the week changed with the school years and around different activities, but it was usually a Monday or Tuesday. It was also a night that we ordered in dinner, so no one had to cook and everyone got to choose what they wanted. I don’t remember much about Ritual or whether it solved any major school-age crises for me. But here I am, a few decades older, and I’m still recalling sitting around that kitchen table, unpacking the takeout and eating together.
Disclosure: I learned about the Food Marketing Institute’s National Family Meals Month (#FamilyMealsMonth) and its campaign to #RaiseYourMitt to commit to one more family meal per week. I was not asked to write about this initiative nor was I compensated to do so. I just honestly believe in family mealtime and the bounty of benefits if can provide.