For many of us, it’s rare to take the time to sit down and enjoy a meal at the table these days. And when you have kids, it can be even more challenging. There are some dinners where my children (and let’s be honest, my husband too) are up and down so many times that I want to give up. Yet, I know that taking the time to sit down and share a meal is important to the wellbeing of our family. A healthy meal, with people we love, in beautiful surroundings nurtures our relationships, bodies, and spirits and can make our lives feel rich and abundant.
So my sister and I came up with these tips for keeping your family at the table:
– Involve your children in the meal by having them set the table or help cook. Even a two year old can set napkins and placemats. I find when kids have a stake in the preparation of a dinner, they’re more interested in it.
– While you are getting dinner ready have an “appetizer” for the kids—just something simple and easy like carrot sticks with dip. If my kids are too hungry when they come to the table, they’re usually too hyper to enjoy dinner and eat slowly.
– Make dining a ritual. Try to eat dinner at about the same time each night to establish a routine. Give everyone a reminder 15 minutes before dinner to get ready. Wait for everyone to be seated to begin eating. Acknowledge the start of the meal with a blessing, a thank you for the food or cook, or even just a simple “bon appetite.”
– Dim the lights and light candles. Even if you are eating early and it’s not dark out yet light candles to set the mood. Little children are mesmerized by fire. Make it a treat for children to blow out the candles when everyone is finished.
– Present the food as attractively as possible. For example, use colorful vegetables like bright green broccoli next to orange carrots.
– Have realistic expectations. A two year old may not sit at the table for very long. Even sitting together for dinner for five or ten minutes is a good place to start. For older children with busy schedules, you may require they sit with you for one meal a day or four meals a week. If having dinner together doesn’t work, perhaps breakfast is a better time for your family meal.
– Be a role model. If your young children see you jump up to answer the phone or get up and down while eating, they will too. Make a commitment to turn off cell phones and let the answering machine pick up during dinner and refrain from texting, checking email, etc. Encourage teenagers who may have their own phones to make plans before dinner.
– Have everything you need for your meal on the table so you won’t be going back and forth to the kitchen every few minutes. I find if I get up, it’s a domino effect—my two year old will follow and then my six year old is apt to do the same. This is particularly important when you have little children who may need assistance; you may want to have an extra cloth for spills, extra juice or water, and cut their food in advance.
– Reconsider what “at the table” means. Many times 18-month to 3-years-olds are much happier sitting at a “little” table. They feel more independent, in control, and it is more comfortable for them to sit in a chair that fits their body. Pull the “little” table close to the family table so you can see each other, talk, and still feel like you’re sharing a meal.
– Eat family style. I find kids eat more when they help themselves. It also cuts down on having to get up and down to go into the kitchen. If you want to save yourself the extra dishes, experiment with putting less food on their plates. The day I put less on my children’s plates, they immediately wanted more. I asked that they eat what they had on their plates first. I did have to get up and down, but they ate very well and must have gone through three servings.
– Create a centerpiece. Keep the focus on the center of the table. In addition to candles, have a bowl of fresh fruit or fresh flowers. You could have seasonal objects or objects from nature. Even toddlers will appreciate a beautifully set table. Young children can create their own centerpiece with stones found on a walk, flowers, or sand from the beach in a pretty container. The more involved they feel the more “special” the meal will become.
– Start an interesting conversation. Ask your kids about their day or ask if they have something to share. Be ready with an interesting story of your own or something you have learned that you know will capture their attention.
– Change your location. When the weather is nice, create an outdoor eating area. Children usually love eating outside and will sit for much longer. If you have a separate dining room, try eating in the dining room instead of the kitchen. When we eat in the dining room, my kids feel like it’s a party. Dining rooms typically have a quieter energy than the kitchen, so kids are more likely to sit still. You can also place some pillows on the floor by the coffee table in your living room or family room. Eating in front of the fireplace is also a hit.
– Maximize snack times. Sometimes there is too much “pressure” at our evening meal. It is the end of the day, we are tired, the kids know they are supposed to sit and eat. I am less attached to what or how much they eat at dinner if I know they have gotten some good food in them during the day. This alone makes the meal more enjoyable because I am not focused on getting them to eat. I find that they eat better at snack times so I usually try to get their vegetables, fruit, and a good protein in them earlier in the day.
– Sometimes it is good to break up the routine. I think my children get just as tired and bored with the dinner-bath-bed process as I do. Eat out once in awhile or try switching off with the neighbors. At least once a week my kids go across the street for dinner and once a week we host our neighbor’s children. My children eat so much better and stay at the table longer with their friends.
– Balance the sweets and salty foods with healthy food. Let them have a treat or salty food on the same plate with the really healthy food. For example, you can serve honey with apples, a cookie with carrots or baked potato chips with a sandwich. If they have a little bit of the junk food or sweets, they get used to it so they won’t overindulge and think it is a big deal when it is presented to them outside the home
– Creative presentation. You don’t need to go too out of your way or do this regularly, but sometimes it helps to rekindle interest in dinners by capturing their imagination. Have an older child write names on place cards and then use a younger child’s miniature cars as a placeholder. Make a smiley face on the pancakes or find little dishes or teacups or interesting things to serve food in. You can tie in the “decorations” to the season or upcoming Holiday.