Pick up groceries – check. Take kids to practice – check. Make dinner and eat as a family – what?
As parents struggle to tick all the boxes on their daily to-do list, family mealtime is one area that often suffers. Shared meals not only help encourage healthy eating, they also provide a valuable opportunity to connect with your kids every day.
“There’s no hard and fast rule about how much time to spend with your kids, what’s important is that you give your kids time every day to talk, ask questions, vent concerns and let them know you’re listening,” said Tanya Hartman, PhD, a child psychologist at Akron Children’s Hospital. “Driving kids from one activity to the next isn’t a replacement for face-to-face, meaningful dialog. Dedicating time to talk with your kids lets them know you care and since eating is something we have to do every day, make that time together count.”
3 Steps to Making Family Meals Happen
There are a few ways to schedule family meals and make them enjoyable for everyone who pulls up a chair.
Look over the calendar to plan a time when everyone can be there.
Figure out what’s getting in the way of more family meals — busy schedules, no supplies in the house, no time to cook. Ask for the family’s help and ideas on how to remove these roadblocks.
For instance, if time to cook is the problem, try doing some prep work on weekends or preparing a dish ahead of time and putting it in the freezer.
“There are lots of nutritious, even organic, prepared meals in local grocers’ frozen and fresh food aisles now,” said Dr. Hartman. “It doesn’t have to be homemade to be nutritious or considered a family meal. Sometimes the act of letting kids shop for or prepare their own dinner can mean the difference between a stressful task and a positive experience.”
Work together to prepare family meals.
Involve your kids in preparations. Recruiting younger kids can mean a little extra work, but it’s often worth it.
You can give preschoolers and young school-age kids simple tasks such as putting plates on the table, tossing the salad, folding the napkins, or being a “taster.” If you have teens around, consider assigning them a night to cook, with you as the helper.
If kids help out, set a good example by saying please and thank you for their help. Being upbeat and pleasant as you prepare the meal can rub off on your kids. If you’re grumbling about the task at hand, chances are they will too.
If a picky eater is disrupting mealtime, Dr. Hartman recommends placing a teaspoon of the new food on the child’s plate along with foods they like. Let the child touch it, lick it and smell it. Don’t take it personally if your child doesn’t like it.
“Research on picky eaters suggests it takes 20 times of experiencing a new food before children will know whether they like it, so be patient and persistent with new foods,” Dr. Hartman said. “It’s all about repeated exposure.”
Another good rule, according to Dr. Hartman, is to always have nutritious, preferred foods available when you introduce new foods, even if it’s just enriched cereal with milk.
“Forcing new foods or having your child go to bed hungry are counterproductive in creating positive experiences with food or family mealtime,” she said.
Enjoy the fruits of your labor.
Even if you’re thinking of all you must accomplish after dinner is done, try not to focus on that during dinner. Make your time at the table pleasant and a chance for everyone to decompress from the day and enjoy being together as a family.
They may be starving, but have your kids wait until everyone is seated before digging in. Create a moment of calm before the meal begins, so the cook can shift gears.
Family mealtime presents a chance to say grace, thank the cook, wish everyone a good meal, or to raise a glass of milk and toast each other. You’re setting the mood and modeling good manners and patience.
Getting the most value out of family mealtime.
Family mealtime provides important opportunities to teach civilized behavior your kids can use at restaurants and others’ houses. So establish rules about staying seated, passing items instead of grabbing them, putting napkins on laps, not talking with their mouths full, and not bringing their devices to the table.
You can gently remind them of the rules when they break them, but try to keep tension and discipline at a minimum during mealtime. Better to give lots of praise for the right behavior. The focus should remain on making your kids feel loved, connected, and part of the family.
“You’re the most influential person in your child’s life so carve out time – at mealtime or otherwise – to talk and listen to them,” Dr. Hartman said. “The time you put in will help them thrive emotionally and physically, now and in the future.”
Digging into conversation.
Keep the interactions at mealtime positive and let the conversation flow. Ask your kids about their days and tell them about yours. Give everyone a chance to talk.
Need some conversation starters? Here are a few:
- If you could have any food for dinner tomorrow night, what would it be?
- Who can guess how many potatoes I used to make that bowl of mashed potatoes?
- What’s the most delicious food on the table?
- If you opened a restaurant, what kind would it be?
- Who’s the best cook you know? (We hope they say it’s you!)