The family meal. We savor the idea of connecting with our loved ones every day over a plate of home-cooked goodness. Small voices sharing stories, older ones discussing current events or sports scores. And of course, second helpings of lovingly sautéed veggies for everyone. Yes, we love the idea. So why don’t we always love mealtime?
Because in real life, dinner can be hard to stomach. The prep time always conflicts with soccer practice and the picky appetites and the bad manners promptly send any thoughts of pleasant conversation to the back burner. Not many of us like to admit it, but sometimes suppertime with our kids is less appetizing than the mystery casserole gathering fuzz in the fridge!
Don’t despair: family dinner is worth the trouble, especially when you’re equipped with the tips and strategies below. What’s more, there’s good news: most of us are eating meals with our families most of the time. A new NBC News study reveals that 79% of parents surveyed eat dinner together most nights, more than in past decades. And that’s good news, considering teens that have frequent family dinners are more likely to avoid drugs, enjoy positive connections with their parents and be content on an emotional level.
While we know family dinners fuel our kids’ minds and relationships as well as their bodies, that doesn’t change the fact that for many of us, supper often feels much more like work than even the typical workday. It’s time to change all that. Whether you’re facing preschoolers who think their chair is a playground, eight-year-olds who tell you your best braised chicken smells like alien poop or teens who can barely manage to show up, let alone turn off their devices, you can take back family dinnertime and make it something everyone can enjoy. It’s time to stop stewing about dinner downers, and try these fast-acting fixes tonight:
Set table rules.
If mealtime messes and mis-manners make you cringe, it’s time for a change. In a calm moment (so, not while you’re threatening to glue Lee to his chair), let your kids know that they’re really growing up and they’re old enough to use their good manners at the table. Outline a few simple rules for your family, such as using utensils appropriately and saying only nice comments about the food, and tell your children that they’re welcome at the table when they stick to the rules. Warn them in advance what happens the next time they attempt to eat applesauce with their fingers: you’ll promptly clear their plate and dismiss them from the dining room until the next mealtime. Sure, the new rules will be tough for your kids to swallow at first. But once you follow through, they’ll know you mean what you say, and mealtime behavior will be much more appealing.
Turn off the heat.
Picky eating is one of parents’ biggest mealtime woes—but it doesn’t have to be. Starting tonight, cook one meal, and try to include at least one item that your kids will eat. Then, inform everyone that the kitchen closes at 6:30 p.m., and won’t reopen again until breakfast the next morning. No need to turn the meal into a heated battle, simply serve the food and allow your kids to eat anything on the table. If they’re hungry later, avoid handing them a cracker or saying I told you so, but instead assure them you know they’ll pull through until tomorrow. Recommend a drink of water to ease their rumbling stomach, and ignore the whining. You’re well on your way to a more peaceful meal—plus with their appetites as their guide instead of your coaxing to “just try it,” your children will actually be more likely to sample the steamed green beans next time.
Let them marinate.
One of the best parts of family dinnertime is connecting over stories. Encourage everyone at the table to share the mountains (high points) as well as the valleys (low points) of their day. Not only will everyone be able to unload about the totally unfair science project they’ve had handed down (or brag about the totally cool science project they completed), but they’ll get practice in active listening, problem solving and other positive social skills while connecting on an emotional level.
Carve out the time.
While most of the families polled managed to eat dinner as a family most nights of the week, that still leaves a lot of empty seats at the family table. Don’t feel guilty if that describes your dining room, but do work on making a fix. How? Here are some ideas:
- Find extra pockets of time in your day by scheduling family breakfasts or weekend lunches instead of dinnertime, checking your email after dinner instead of working late at the office, and helping your kids plan their days to make dinner together a priority.
- If you’re chronically short on time for supper, schedule in time for prep work the night before, create a rotation of super-simple suppers, or use an easy-access caddy for silverware and napkins and enlist your kids to set the table. Double recipes, especially on the weekends, so you can stock your freezer for busy nights.
- Bear in mind that the food served is less important than the faces around the table, and it’s okay to resort to frozen dinners, easy crockpot meals or takeout, or teach your older kids to pitch in. They might discover your mom’s love for cooking that somehow skipped a generation.
- Once you’ve got your family together, work on turning off the technology (yours first!) so that everyone can tune into their eats and each other. Make a “no technology at the table” rule, and stick to it, so that you can truly make the most of your time as a family.
While dinner may often be the 15-minute block of time between gymnastics practice and Boy Scouts, your family can thrive by making it a priority. Soon, even mealtime at your house will not only be a regular occurrence, but a pleasant one, too. And that’s truly something to savor.
View the full report of the "State of Parenting" study to learn more about the findings.
TODAY Parents contributor, Amy McCready is the Founder of PositiveParentingSolutions.com and the author of If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. Amy’s next book, The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic: A Step-by-step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World (Penguin Random House), will be released in August 2015. In her most important role, she plays mom to two teenage boys.