One of my fondest memories growing up was family dinners. Every night we sat down and ate dinner together – all six of us. No matter if any of us had the best or worst day at school or work, we would stop to share food together. It wasn’t simply eating dinner together that was remarkable, it was what my parents did with this opportunity of having us all together. They created a positive and nurturing environment while modeling priceless life skills: love, social skills, and healthy eating habits. Although there were many times I wished our family was one of the “cool” families that ate dinner in front of the TV, now as an adult and parent I recognize the importance of having family meals. Don’t get me wrong, our family dinners were far from perfect. Sometimes they were disasters, but they did provide important messages.
Messages you can provide through family dinners:
“All you need is love”
– By cooking a healthy, homemade meal you are showing your child love. Very simply, by fueling your child’s brain and body with nutrition necessary for healthy growth and development, you demonstrate your love for that child.
– You can encourage your child to help you with the meals. Make this experience positive and fun by giving them “hands-on” activities like kneading the dough, squeezing oranges, or mashing potatoes. Chances are, if you make it fun, you will always have a helping hand in the kitchen. Additionally, your child gains competency by mastering these new skills of cooking.
– Children love rituals. Rituals give them feelings of safety and security. As we encourage bedtime rituals, we can encourage eating rituals. Eating meals as a family 5 nights a week is a ritual in itself, but the ritual can include the things we do during these meals: holding hands and giving thanks before eating, raising glasses in a toast, or eating certain meals on certain days. What is your family’s eating rituals?
– Pleasurable conversation should be encouraged. There are plenty of other times to talk about grades, homework, chores, or misbehavior. All conversation does not have to be positive though. Dinner also creates an opportunity to talk about serious issues such as the health of a loved one or a current event.
– By sitting down and taking the time to eat as a family, without interruption, you are sending your child the message, “You are important to me. I want to spend time with you and hear what you have to say.” Even if you have just had an argument before dinner, you can model to your child forgiveness and not dwelling on issues. You are modeling emotional regulation for your child and the message of love is still very clear.
“The value of conversation”
– Ask questions to engage your children in the conversation. If you ask, “How was school today?”, chances are you will hear “Fine.” But if you ask, “What was the best thing that happened at school today?” or, “If you could change one thing about today, what would it be?” you are opening the door for much more conversation.
– Share about your own day. Tell about your own successes and failures. It is important for children to know that nobody is perfect and we can all learn from our experiences.
– How do you know someone is listening? Eye contact, head nods, responding. Call out good behavior when you see it. “Wow, I could really tell you were listening to what Margaret had to say.” Or “I love how you are sharing about your day and then listened to hear about other people’s days.”
– It is important to take turns and make sure everyone is having an opportunity to talk. If one person is dominating the conversation, the parents need to step in and address the concern. “Thank you for sharing so many exciting things about your day, but we haven’t heard from John, and we want to hear what he has to say.”
– Parents are in charge of making sure everyone is being respectful during the meal. If someone is not, it is important to gently call them on the process, have them take responsibility for their actions and apologize. For example, “Judy, that is not respectful of your brother. Please apologize. Thank you.” Then move on and enjoy each other. Don’t dwell on the misbehavior.
– All family members should not have a cell/blackberry/etc anywhere near the table during the family meal. Do not respond to calls, texts, or emails. How do we expect our kids to put their phones away if we won’t put ours away?
“An apple a day”
– Kids generally eat what they are served, so it is helpful to establish healthy eating habits at a young age. This includes limiting sweets and desserts.
– Having conversation while eating helps everyone eat more slowly so everyone is less likely to overeat.
– Talk with your kids about being aware of how their stomachs feel. Are they full? Just right? Still hungry? Listening to the messages your body is sending you about nourishment is important and helping your child gain the self-awareness to recognize these messages is vital in establishing a healthy lifestyle.
Family dinners create an opportunity to show love, approval, and forgiveness. Additionally, it gives a chance to improve communication among family members. These dinners won’t always work, but don’t become discouraged. Your children will remember if you were genuine in your attempts, not if you made a mistake. What would you like to see happen at your family dinners?
On a personal note, I would like to thank my parents for all of the love, time, and patience they put into our family dinners. My parents enjoyed hearing that I was writing a blog about family dinners. They had memories of our wonderful and disastrous dinners. It is funny because all I remember was the love.