As a fresh school year approaches, many families are gearing up for busy days ahead. With hectic mornings and long days at school and work—coupled with homework, afternoon activities, and social engagements—it’s no wonder that many families struggle to find time to simply connect and focus on one another.
Knowing that you can count on established “family time” at dinner is a perfect opportunity to connect with each other. When you establish mealtime rituals and traditions with your children, everyone benefits. A wealth of recent research says family dinners have positive effects on children and parents. Aside from better communication and family bonding, family mealtime can even help lower rates of childhood depression, reduce the risks of teen pregnancy and substance abuse, increase children’s vocabulary, and improve self-esteem and academic success.
To make the most of your family’s time together, we offer tips for successful family mealtimes.
Set realistic expectations
- Start setting habits for family mealtime when your child is young. Consider what’s realistic for your schedule and your child’s age and personality.
- Expect a mess! When young children are first learning to eat by themselves or sit at the table there will be spills and messes. Prepare for it:
- Consider putting down a tarp, shower curtain or towel under where your child sits for easy clean up.
- Have a washcloth handy for sticky hands and face. Make a game of cleaning them up.
- Even older children will have spills. Try to remain calm and show your child how to clean up their messes. Offer assistance but avoid doing the whole job for them.
- Praise your child when they are successful like when they drink out of a cup without spilling. Teach them to put their cup in the “no spill zone” (between 10 and 2 above their plate).
- Consider how long your child can successfully sit. The praise “quality over quantity” applies here. Don’t make your toddler sit at the table for longer than they can tolerate. Praise your child for sitting patiently at the table while the family starts their dinner. You may start with ten minutes, and gradually increase the time you expect your child to sit with you. Engage them in conversation, and make sure their time at the table is positive.
At the table
- Talking around the table is part of what makes family dinners so great, but make sure your child isn’t interacting so much that they forget to eat. Toddlers and younger children might benefit from prompts, such as “Will you please take one more bite of chicken?” Balance this with knowing that it is your job to provide nutritious food, and the child’s job to decide how much to eat.
- Don’t get into a power struggle over a particular food.
- Children, like adults, have food likes and dislikes. Try a variety of healthy foods and age-appropriate portions and textures. Children may need to try a food several times before they will eat it. Many have a “one bite” guideline, and then the child can say “no thank you” to subsequent bites.
- Have your child try new foods. Don’t force them to eat things they object to, especially if they are happy eating a different healthy choice. But offer a wide variety of foods – you might be surprised what they like!
- Children’s tastes develop and change. After some time passes, ask them to try a food they previously rejected.
- Use different colors, shapes and sizes of food to spark your child’s interest.
- Don’t force your child to eat everything on their plate. If they have eaten a sufficient amount of healthy food, let them decide if they feel full. Helping your child to learn to follow what her body needs is setting her up for good eating habits for life.
Have a routine the family can count on
Set specific times to have a meal together that works with everyone’s schedule and set routines for before and after meals. Here are some ideas that have worked for some families:
- Before dinner: Screens off at 6 pm. Wash hands. Child puts out silverware. Dinner at 6:30.
- Avoid snacks within an hour or so of mealtime. Even healthy snacks can interfere with dinner eating. Avoid milk or juice between meals; in fact, juice is no longer recommended for children. Stick to water.
- But make sure your child has a good snack earlier in the day so they don’t get hungry and cranky waiting for dinner.
- After dinner: Dishes in sink, homework, playtime, brush teeth, read books then bedtime.
Benefits of mealtimes together
Help set the stage for getting the most out of mealtimes when your child is young. They can learn about responsibility, social interactions, manners, motor skills, independence, healthy self-care and even math!
Through mealtimes, your child can:
- Say please and thank you when asking for food.
- Pour drinks for themselves or fold napkins (motor skills). Put milk in a small pitcher that is light and fits their hand.
- Make decisions — “Would you like carrots or celery?” Give two choices you can live with (i.e. not “Do you want carrots?”).
- Talk about feelings and experiences. Help them name their emotions and express them in appropriate ways.
- Listen to others and wait their turn to talk.
- Learn about shapes and sizes (math):
- May I have the bigger piece?
- “I like the sandwich when it’s cut into triangles.”
As your child grows, their involvement with mealtime should too. Older children can:
- Help with cooking.
- Sit at the dinner table for longer periods.
- Have more in-depth conversations and address social or political issues.
Family, food, and fun
In our hectic world, it might feel challenging to have family meals together. But prioritize at least a few days a week for family mealtime and start when your children are young. You’ll give them a healthy start towards building a positive relationship with eating, building positive family communication, and so much more.
This article is brought to you by Parenting Now Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com).