As we established in the last blog post, regular family meals can be vital to your child’s development, especially when we as parents have demanding schedules that might prevent us from connecting with our children the way we would like to. How do we make time for relaxed family dinners that give us a chance to talk and bond as a family? Here are five ideas for making it work:
1. Establish family meals as a consistent expectation in your home. Since family meals are a priority, handle them as just that. Explain to your kids that you plan to eat together at least three to five nights a week, and stick to the plan. Tell them that family dinner is important just as going to work or school is important, and cannot be skipped except for a very good reason. Let them know that family is so valuable that we have to carve out time to be a family. You can set an approximate meal time for them and expect all to come to the table when you call.
"...family dinner is important just as going to work or school is important..."
2. Get children involved in preparing for the meal. Whether your table settings are bare bones with paper plates, or you go all out with plates and glasses, show your kids what to do and have them get the table ready. They can also help with basic food preparation. Depending on their age, they can wash vegetables, cut up food, or fill up the sink with hot soapy water to expedite later dish washing. You might be surprised at how a little help cuts down on preparation time. Also, when the kids assist you, they are already spending time with you and appreciating what goes into preparing a meal. They will also be available and ready to sit down when it is time to eat.
3. Go for simple and convenient when needed. After a long day at work, especially if you are not yet in the habit of cooking much at home, the thought of preparing a complicated meal can be intimidating. Yet you can serve simple dinners that are still nutritious. The point is not five-star gourmet dinners, but the people with whom you are sharing the meal. Think variety and balance. Sure, go ahead and bake that supermarket pizza on Friday nights (paper plates and no clean-up). But Monday might be oven-cooked fish, steamed vegetables, and a healthy starch. Tuesday could be a store-bought roast chicken, baked potatoes, and salad. Chili and cornbread muffins can be a quick meal. You’ll discover shortcuts as you go. For example, at the grocery store you can find frozen steam-in-the bag vegetables, bagged salads, cornbread mixes, and other conveniences. (And you’ll still be spending only about a quarter of what it costs to eat out.) Find a few shortcuts to reduce cleanup, as well. Then, there might be certain days of the week when you have time for that spaghetti sauce made from scratch or the new recipe you want to try.
4. Make sure phones and other devices are deposited in rooms before dinner. This includes your phone, too. With a phone free meal, you’ll be able to focus on one another without distractions.
5. Develop some questions to get the conversation started. If family dinners are quiet at first, think about some interesting questions to ask. Once you’ve exhausted the “How was school today,” you can find some ways to dig further. If there was a field trip, ask them where they went. What was their favorite thing about the trip? What was something they learned? For a typical school day, you could ask them who they sit with at lunch. As an interested audience, you can ask what they like to talk about at lunch. Then there’s the classics: What’s your favorite class? Who is your favorite teacher? What do you like about this class/teacher? What are you learning in history class? A conversation about history class could segue to a discussion of some important issue. Also, be ready to share about your day, your life, and your favorite teachers.
What further suggestions do you have for establishing family dinners in your home? Please share. We’d love to hear what you do to preserve this important routine at your house.