Do you ever have those nights when everyone’s together and you actually have the time to pull together a healthy meal, only to sit down to a family dinner that’s less than pleasurable?
Maybe the kids say they’re starving, but when dinner is on the table, it’s “ew!,” “gross!,” and “I’m not eating that!”
One of my personal pet peeves is table manners, such as when my kids eat with their mouths open or interrupt when my husband and I are talking.
Sometimes, it’s so hectic trying to get dinner on the table after work that when we finally sit down to eat, I’m exhausted and need to take a “time out” from all the chaos. I know I should eat with my family, but often times, I’ll eat alone later on when my kids are winding down for the night and it’s quieter.
However, now more than ever before, most families have the time to eat together so we want family dinner to be relaxing and enjoyable. Read on for 8 ways to make it a reality.
1. USE THE WHEN-THEN APPROACH
Although they always like to eat, somehow when it’s dinner time, my kids are engaged in an activity or want to finish the show they’re watching.
My oldest is a rule follower, so she’ll always stop what she’s doing to set the table, while youngest one always drags her feet or conveniently has to go to the bathroom.
I’ll try to give them a heads up by telling them that we’ll be eating in 10 minutes, or when daddy walks in the door. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
What does work however, is the “when-then” tool, something I learned from Amy McCready in her book “If I Have to Tell You One More Time…: The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids To Listen Without Nagging, Reminding, or Yelling.”
This is how it works: “when you set the table, then we can eat.”
Or “when you clean up your toys, then we can eat.”
Using these two simple words, my kids know they won’t be eating dinner until it’s done.
2. DON’T STRESS ABOUT PICKY EATING
Picky eating is by far one of the most stressful things to deal with at dinner time, but see picky eating for what it is: a small, short-term obstacle to healthy eating.
Instead of worrying whether your children ate their vegetables or had enough to eat, continue to serve up healthy foods and eat meals together.
Studies show kids are more likely to make healthy choices when there’s variety on the table, so serve two kinds of vegetables or a vegetable and a salad, for example.
Related: 10 Ways To Deal With Picky Eaters When You’re Fed Up
Serve familiar foods as well as new foods or foods that your kids aren’t likely to try—but may try in the future.
Also, instead of pressuring your kids to take a bite, or try it, you’ll like it, encourage them to touch, smell, and even play with their food. In fact, kids who play with their food are more likely to try new flavors and a wider variety of foods, a July 2015 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests.
Talk about the shapes, colors, texture and aroma of the foods on their plate. If they takes a bite, that’s great, but the goal is to let them explore food without feeling pressure to eat it.
3. GIVE EVERYONE A TASK
My daughters love to help me in the kitchen. They peel carrots, cut vegetables, make scrambled eggs, and pour, stir and mix. They also like to wash and dry the dishes together and my oldest has a knack for organizing kitchen drawers.
Getting your kids in the kitchen is one of the best ways to encourage healthy eating habits and get your kids out of their picky eating ways.
When kids have a hand in making the meal, they’re so much more likely to at least try what you’ve made, which means your family dinner will be that much more enjoyable. Sure, there will be messes and it will take longer, but if you can do it once or a few times a week, it’s worth it.
Also, think of other ways they can help out that don’t involve cooking. For example, little ones can sort utensils or put napkins on the table, while older kids can set the table and clean up.
4. ELIMINATE ALL DISTRACTIONS
When I was a kid and someone called during dinner, maybe you picked up the phone but that time was sacred and you always called them back.
Today however, with our phones attached at the hip, it’s not unusual to take a phone call, check email, text, check the score, or even watch TV during dinner.
Not only are the devices distracting, but they take away from meaningful conversations, prevent us from being truly present with our families and make for a less than enjoyable family dinner.
Try to make a commitment as a family that there will be no phones, devices or TV allowed during dinner.
Instead, focus on the pleasure of eating good food, family time and the relationships that you are building.
5. GET CREATIVE WITH CONVERSATION
There are so many benefits of family meals that are backed by science.
For example, kids are more likely to be healthy eaters, may do better in school, have fewer symptoms of depression, and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors when they’re teens.
Gathering around the table together builds strong family bonds and is a great opportunity to open the lines of communication. If you’re looking for more to talk about than how was your day? however, here are some conversation starters.
- What are you grateful for today?
- What was the best or most surprising part of your day?
- What did you learn today?
- What do you love about your sibling?
- If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be?
- How did you help or show compassion to someone today?
- What’s your favorite family tradition or memory?
6. BE FLEXIBLE
When you have little ones, it can be tough to even pull off a family dinner. I remember the days when I had a toddler in the high chair, a baby at the breast and all I wanted to do was go to sleep.
Instead of striving for perfection, stay focused on why you’re gathering around the table and remain flexible.
Your kids will spill (or throw) food on the floor and they probably won’t be able to stay seated for too long.
If it’s easier to serve dinner at the center aisle or use paper dishes, there’s no shame in making your life easier.
It won’t last forever, but if you’re consistent with serving healthy meals and making a habit of family dinner, you’re laying a great foundation as they get older.
7. LAUGH TOGETHER
My husband’s sense of humor and the ability to make me laugh are some of the reasons I married him. So often times, he brings laughter to our family dinner table which diffuses any stress we may be feeling.
As it turns out, the old adage, laughter is the best medicine is backed by science.
According to this Forbes article, laughter boosts endorphins—the same feel good chemicals you get from a workout—fosters feelings of togetherness and safety, and boosts serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that’s known as the happy chemical.
So be silly with your kids. Need ideas? The Family Dinner Project recommends making a family joke jar, playing a round of Cat and Cow, or trying tongue twisters to get everyone laughing.
8. AVOID BRIBING KIDS WITH DESSERT
When all you want to do is get your kids to eat their vegetables, bribing them with dessert in exchange for at least a few bites sounds like a great idea.
Yet this tactic only teaches kids that vegetables are less desirable than dessert.
Instead, consider serving dessert with dinner and let your kids decide in what order they want to eat it.
Also, I wouldn’t stress out too much if your kid only eats the dessert. If you’re consistently serving vegetables (or foods that they don’t like or are new) alongside foods they like, they’re more likely to try everything.
Another idea is to re-think what dessert is in your home. For example, my kids often think dessert is a cookie or ice cream, but my husband and I explain that fruit can be dessert too.
You could also serve yogurt, a muffin, or dried fruit so at the end of the day, if they only eat the dessert, it’s not the end of the world.