By: Zoe Cavinder, TULA Director of All Things Family
In our home we are extremely passionate about healthy eating and the joy and connection that is fostered through family meals. My husband and I both grew up with the requirement that we would sit down to dinner (or supper, in his home) and we remember those times very fondly. However, our lives have become even more busy than the generations before us. There are more challenges and distractions than ever (hello, smart-phones) which prevent us from meeting at the table for a time of quality connection. Family meals have declined by more than a third in the last 20 years despite the fact that the benefits of sharing meals together have been heavily researched and are undeniable. Children who share regular meals with their family are shown to perform better academically, struggle less emotionally, engage in less risky behavior, and have closer relationships with their parents. Shared meals can help everyone in the family slow down and experience the pleasure of great food and company. Here are some suggestions for creating a mealtime habit with ease:
Turn off your Devices - If you look at the etiquette for a proper place setting you will not find a spot for your smart-phone. If there is one time in the day to set your phone in a basket or simply power it off, it is during dinnertime. In my dream world, we would luxuriate over our meals for at least 90 minutes with friends and family, like the days of old, but of course that is a bit unrealistic. Try to find at least 15-30 minutes to set aside technology and engage wholeheartedly with your family.
Remove Mental Clutter - One way to help accomplish the above goal is to remove some of the mental clutter you bring with you to the table. Wrap up any lingering work communication, send some of your todo list tasks to TULA, or do a 5 minute pre-dinner meditation to clear your mind. We can’t truly connect until our minds are clear and free.
Set Achievable Goals - If you’re trying to make family meals a priority, make sure you evaluate your baseline and set your goal(s) accordingly. Your goal should be a mere baby-step in the right direction. This could be as simple as turning off the TV during meals or sharing 2 family meals together per week. Once you accomplish your small goal you can scale up to something more. Remember the phase of life that you’re in and that your children will grow and mature. It won’t always be a dinnertime circus but it’s never too early to encourage good habits.
Prep Ahead - Sometimes after a long day of work or caring for children, or both (thanks, pandemic!) the last thing we can think about is preparing dinner. I don’t know about you but when 4 pm rolls around it is my least energetic time of day. On top of that, the kids are usually wound up, our house feels like total chaos, and I am sometimes on the brink of sensory meltdown. If you know this is how your evenings will feel, consider making regular slow-cooker meals or prepping ahead in the morning or over the weekends. My favorite is a hybrid of the two: prepping freezer to slow-cooker meals ahead of time. All you have to do is dump your bag of ingredients in the slow cooker and voila!
Cook Together - Families who cook together stay together. If you do have the energy to cook in the evening, set aside a time to cook with your children and embrace the mess. Having a helper not only lightens the workload but also gives your child ownership over the meal. Especially if you have a picky eater, letting them see, touch, and feel the ingredients will make them more inclined to want to learn about and try new foods. If the mess is too much for you or if it feels like your child is slowing down the process of getting dinner out, have them engage by setting the table or doing one simple task like peeling carrots.
Serve Meals Family Style - Sometimes the mealtime discontentment comes from stressing about what our kids will or will not eat. Consider lowering your expectations and adjusting the format to family style or deconstructed. Children love autonomy and engaging in practical life skills. Let your children pass around the bowls of food and get a small pitcher so they can pass and serve their own beverage. This gives your child the freedom to choose what they want to eat and takes the pressure off of forcing your child to eat (we never want to lead our children into disordered eating). If you have a super picky eater make sure that there are a few wholesome staples on the table that they will select; at our table this might mean fruit, carrots, or healthy PB&J sandwiches.
Have a Dinnertime Conversation Ritual - In our family we go around the table and each person gets a chance to say something nice about their family mates. The boys absolutely love this and you can see their faces light up with pleasure when they receive compliments from their nearest and dearest. It is a great way to boost self-esteem and family connection and often involves recapping some of the events from the week. If the activity becomes stale you can switch it up monthly. Other ideas include saying your high and low from the day, reading a short story or poem together, or simply expressing gratitude. There are also some fun conversation starter games out there including Our Moments and Table Topics.
Hopefully by using some of these tips you can enter the dinnertime scramble from a place of ease. The most important mindset with any change to your family routine: grace, grace, grace. If your carefully curated dinner plans implode one night, that’s okay. Sometimes our job as parents is to survive, surrender, and mitigate stress. Especially when our children are young, we cannot expect perfection, and having everyone at the table for 5 minutes might be a huge win. Retry your efforts the next night and remember, as long as you remain dedicated to trying, there are many harmonious years of family dining ahead of you.