Family Dinners

Eating dinner together as a family is a topic near and dear to my heart.  If I had to name the top five things that we do as parents and are important to our family, family dinners would definitely be right up there toward the top.  It is something we do together every night and provides continuity to our family and a chance to spend time enjoying each other's company at the end of often busy days.

There are many studies that have been done which support the importance of family dinners for children's development and well being.  For instance, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse did a study on family meals and the effects on adolescents. They compared adolescents who ate dinner on a regular basis with their families with adolescents who rarely ate at family dinners. Those who participated in family dinners:

• Had half the risk for substance abuse
• Were less likely to have friends who abuse drugs
• Experienced lower levels of stress and tension at home
• Were more likely to say their parents are proud of them
• Were more likely to say they could confide in parents
• Had better grades
• Were more likely to be emotionally content
• Had better eating habits
• Were at lower risk for thoughts of suicide
• Were less likely to try marijuana

Eating dinner together is clearly more than just a meal which nourishes the body, it is also something which nourishes the soul.  But, we all know that dinner doesn't just happen by itself.  Then once, the food is prepared, there are the logistics of eating with children around a table and keeping chaos at bay and developing the art of conversation.  There are a lot of pieces to this dinner puzzle.  While I can write pages and pages about this, I will limit myself to some of my best tips about each piece.
First, if this is all new to you, the first step is to just start.  If you have never made a habit of eating together, you may want to limit dinners to just a couple times a week until you begin to pick-up the habit.  At this point, the important thing is that you sit down and eat together, without any TV's, phones, or headphones invited to the table.  It may be necessary to schedule dinners on every family members calendar to carve out the time.  In order to make this work, it will involve sacrifice.  You may need to turn down outside classes or opportunities that may sound good, but remember that by choosing to eat dinner together, you are choosing, not just good, but the best.
Once you have made the commitment to eat together, the next step is meal planning.  It is a huge help to know what you are having for dinner before it is time to prepare it.  I plan a week's worth of meals at a time and go grocery shopping for the supplies once a week.  This saves me time and money because I am not making many trips to the store and fewer trips to the store means less money spent overall.  I also don't have the daily panic of what I am going to fix for dinner.  I know and can begin the prep work earlier in the day so dinner goes together smoothly.  I can also assign tasks to children if I allow enough time.  This gives them the benefit of learning cooking skills and the self-satisfaction of helping the family.  Some things you can do to avoid monotony include:
  • Check cookbooks out of the library for new recipes and ideas. Often there are only one or two recipes that I really like, so I will just write out those and happily return the book.
  • Use Google. If you have some odd ingredients and need to make dinner, put the ingredients into a search engine and it will find recipes based on those ingredients.
  • Plan special dinners. Ideas could include:
    • Preparing a meal from another country (don’t be afraid to be adventurous…my children have discovered a love of curry.)
    • Have a fancy dinner, where you use good china, serve sparkling juice, and everyone wears nice clothes.
    • Serve breakfast for dinner.
    • Have a backwards dinner. Dessert comes first, followed by the main course.
    • Have an indoor picnic. This is particularly fun if the weather isn’t nice enough for an outdoor picnic.
And now, everyone has agreed that eating dinner together is important, you have meals planned, you sit down at the table and your children have wolfed down their food and have escaped back to their toys before your visions of cozy dinner conversations ever became a reality.  How do you stop the dinner-time chaos?  Here are some things to remember:
  • Young children are capable of sitting at the table.  It takes consistent training, but they are quite capable of it.  Do not set your sites too low for what you expect of your children.
  • Instill a respect of others.  Children can be trained to wait until all are served to begin eating and wait to be excused from the table until all are done.  In our family, if you get up from the table (unless you have been excused to get something) you are done.  You may not come back for more food and must wait until the next meal.
  • Have a question or two ready to discuss in case natural conversation lags.  We will sometimes go around and have everyone share what was the best and worst part of the day.  Other times we will ask open-ended questions.  For instance, "How would life be different if people could teleport to other places?"
  • Insist on good table manners.  For instance, we ask that children use their silverware, that they not shout, that they not touch their feet, and that they not comment negatively on the food before them.  All infractions (after a warning) will result in the loss of dinner.  They will not starve before the next meal rolls around, and the boorish behavior is rarely repeated.  They all know the rules and the consequences before we begin... it is not a surprise.
  • Have fun and enjoy your family.  Just because everyone is expected to behave well, does not mean that we do not enjoy ourselves.  There was the time that A. fell out of her chair because she was laughing so hard.  I don't even remember what was so funny, but it was evidently hilarious.  This is a far more representative picture of our family dinners than the image of children sitting sedately and quietly at the table.  We may not yell and put our feet on the table but we do have fun.
You are creating memories.  The daily rituals are some of the memories that will be the longest lasting.  These shared memories and experiences are what bind families together across miles and years.

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