How often does your family sit down for a meal together? No matter how hectic your schedules, it’s important to maintain a regular tradition of sitting down to the table as a family. Doing so provides multiple benefits for parents and children alike, including precious bonding time in a busy day and the ability to focus on eating nutritious, normal portions rather than eating on the go or in front of the television. Whether you have family meals often or are looking to start this tradition, there are ways to improve the time spent together at the dinner table. Try some of these steps before your clan’s next communal meal and see the difference it makes!
1. Establish Ground Rules. It’s important that everyone is on the same page. Talk to kids about table etiquette beforehand so you don’t spend the entire meal chiding them for bad manners, and establish basic rules that everyone can agree on. This way, rather than negotiating about rules at the table, the lines have already been drawn. If your child is a picky eater, for instance, make an agreement ahead of time that they have to try at least one new food before having dessert. Rules at the table don’t apply to just kids. Common rules that apply to the whole family could include no complaining about the food unless you assisted in cooking or no cell phones at the table. The latter is especially important for parents to remember. Putting down the smartphone and focusing your entire attention on family time not only sets a good example but also shows kids that you care wholeheartedly about spending time with them.
2. Learn a Little. Sitting down to the table together actually provides a perfect opportunity to learn from one another. Allow children to talk about what they’re studying in school and discuss those topics as a family. Mealtime can also be a great opportunity to teach curious kids about nutrition, culture and history. Discuss the food you’re eating and why it’s important to understand nutrition, the food chain, etc. Talk about different food and family traditions in history and other cultures, and even share your own family meal memories from growing up. Doing so helps kids (and adults) understand why mealtime together is important. Remember that everyone at the table can learn from one another, even if it just means teaching your toddler about the shapes and colors of their food.
3. Work Together. Feel like the burden of making a meal is all on you? Make communal meal prep a part of the tradition. Doing so helps everyone appreciate their food more, and prevents the stress of having one person do all the cooking. Like establishing ground rules, it can be beneficial to agree on specific tasks before starting. Choose tasks that suit age range and ability, like letting teens chop meat and vegetables while having younger kids count and stir ingredients. Doing so not only teaches practical skills but also teamwork and responsibility. Again, this is a great opportunity for learning and storytelling – explain the history of the recipe you’re making or the science behind the ingredients involved.
Don’t forget about clean-up. Delegating the arduous process of cleaning up after a large family meal means that you can actually enjoy your food without dreading the sink full of dishes you have waiting. By sharing tasks like clearing the table and washing and drying the dishes, clean-up will be done in no time.
4. Set a Schedule. This one may seem obvious, but it’s necessary. Even if you have the best of intentions in enjoying meals together regularly, it’s unlikely to happen unless you create a definite schedule to do so. Create a list of all the activities that occur – i.e. baseball practices, late shifts at work, etc. – that would prevent the entire family from being able to eat together. Agree upon a schedule that works around those times. Even if you can’t have dinner together every night of the week, creating a calendar that plans out family meals month-by-month or weekly can help even the busiest of families find time to dine together.
5. Be Flexible. This one may seem in contrast to #4, but it’s just as important. It’s unrealistic to expect that every single meal is going to occur by schedule. Maintaining a tradition doesn’t have to mean being rigid, and having some flexibility can even lead to creating new traditions. Maybe you can’t find a single weeknight to have dinner together, but that doesn’t mean you can’t plan a family picnic before your child’s weekend soccer games. Finding ways to make mealtimes fit with busy schedules, like having breakfast on weekdays or Sunday supper in the middle of the afternoon, can work just as well as traditional dinners, so long as you’re together.
6. Enjoy it. Does the idea of family mealtime stress you out? Don’t let the idea intimidate you. If you have to order takeout instead of making a meal from scratch or confiscate cell phones in order to make mealtimes work, so be it. The important thing is quality time together, and that’s a tradition no family should be without.