Even though my older two are only in kindergarten and second grade, it's remarkable how little time we actually see each other during the week. They usually eat their breakfast "kids only" at their little table in the family room while I make lunches and locate homework and library books, and then once they get home off the bus there is really only a three hour window before bedtime (my five year old especially goes to bed really early). I know as they get older that time will only get less and less, which is why I'm hoping our dinner ritual is something that we can stick to. We don't always cook, but we always eat together at the dinner table. I've found that this one simple act encapsulates so many of my parenting goals into one. First, we all get to spend time together, all of us, at the same time. Even when Jack was a baby I would either nurse him at the table or hold him while he was snoozing so we could all be together. Second, the kids get to practice their manners, their please and thank yous, their table manners, and they get to practice making little conversations. The kids are not allowed to say something is "gross" (don't be rude to the food), butts must stay on the seats. We share parts of our day, we talk about school, talk about the weekend, or just tell little stories. There are no phones allowed at the table, the television is of course off, and the kids must ask to be excused.
The "rules" about what we serve and how much they eat are kind of fluid. They DO have to try something new, even if it is just a bite. They do NOT have to "clean their plates". I have to admit though, I was guilty of giving the kids way more than they could actually eat, and now we start out with a much smaller, reasonable amount. Seconds are always easier to give then to finish a plate that is too full. We don't make separate meals for the kids (Jack included) but we do a lot of "customizable meals" like bibimbap and "leftover pizza" that lets the kids build a dish that includes what they like. Sometimes it's an honest to goodness home cooked meal, sometimes we try something different, sometimes it's something quick and easy that I know the kids will eat, sometimes it's takeout or pizza. But always, even if it is involving Chinese takeout containers, we are gathered around our table eating together.
Overall, my aim is to make our family dinners a pleasant, comfortable experience. There is no forcing the kids to eat, no threatening to take away desserts and no bargaining. We tried the dessert reward thing, and honestly it turned the entire dinner table conversation into "How many more bites do I have to take?" and that was tedious for everyone. Nothing sucks the fun out of a meal more than feeling like you constantly need to remind a small child to "EAT YOUR DINNER!". One day I decided that if they are hungry, they will eat, if they aren't, they will not. Once I took the hawk eyed meal monitor out of the equation and focused it more on making little conversations with them I noticed that more and more food was eaten.
Like I said, it isn't always easy to make it happen, but I have a few tips for making it work consistently:
- Make the commitment and stick with it. Schedule the time and make it a priority. Be flexible but firm in giving it a go and don't let little hurdles derail you. We've had nights where we didn't get a chance to go to the grocery store and had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the table with milk. It wasn't the greatest dinner I've ever served but we ate it together, and the kids still talk about it as one of their favorites. Breakfast for dinner is another big hit. Throw some frozen waffles in the toaster, pour some OJ and sit down and eat together. Done.
- Keep your expectations reasonable. Maybe it won't always be the easiest or most pleasant experience, especially if you have younger kids, and maybe you feel like you only get a few minutes of actual quality time out of the entire process, but stick with it. Figure out what works for your family and what doesn't work and make changes to help it flow more smoothly moving forward.
- Be flexible with scheduling. Sometimes we need to stretch the meal time out a little and start dinner before one of us gets home, but we always include some time together at the table as a family. It isn't the timing so much as the ritual that the kids will respond to.
- Don't stress too much about who eats what. Having a focus on healthy eating is important, but look at the family dinner time more about enjoying your time together and less about making sure kids eat all their veggies.
- Include the whole family in the process. Have kids help cook, set the table, clean up and even plan out what to serve. If kids are involved in the dinner process they are more likely to try new things.
- Skip the clean plate club. Studies have shown that requiring kids to eat everything that is served to them can lead to significant overeating. Kids need to learn that they are the ones who control their eating habits, and being forced to eat when they are not hungry or don't want to can mean they don't properly learn to regulate those eating habits. Plus, we all know likes and dislikes in kids food choices can change week to week. Rather than get frustrated by it, give them to power to make their own choices. Just make sure there are healthy options for them at every meal. Some good food will get in there.
- Want to encourage the kids to try new things? Be a role model and show them that you like to try new foods. In that vein though, it's okay for them to have strong dislikes, I'm sure you can think of at least a few foods you can't stand and wouldn't appreciate being forced to eat.
Do you do family dinners at your house? Do you have some tips on how to make it work?