I have so many fond memories of family meals, I’m not sure where to start. My favorite evenings at home with my parents were when my mom would play Sergio Mendez while she and my dad cooked and, while nobody actually danced around the kitchen, there was a vibrant, happy atmosphere. I loved Sunday dinners, too, because we’d eat in the formal dining room and my brother and I got to light candles all along the walls and then put them out with a long, antique metal snuffer, our special Sunday dinner job. Gatherings with extended family were (and still are) even better, sitting at the table with my aunts, uncles, cousins and grandma, everybody laughing and chatting while we happily ate the piles of delicious food on our plates. Even once the meal was over, most of us would still sit at the table, my aunts and grandma reminiscing while I listened with eager ears. Those are my happiest memories of all and something I want my children to have the opportunity to experience. Of course, not every meal was this memorable, but they were (outside of exceptions like nights out) always with family.
I think one of the biggest mistakes is being lax with our children until “they understand” and then trying to change things up on them. It doesn’t matter if your child knows what’s going on yet; if she grows up watching you, listening to you, participating with you, she’ll eventually catch on and then it’ll simply be a part of normal life, just the way things are. And if you don’t start from day one, if you let your baby eat in the family room in front of the television for the first couple years, you’re teaching her that this is normal and when you try to change it and get her to sit properly at the table, she’s going to resist you and it’ll be that much harder for you to keep trying. I know this part from experience as a few nights ago G was fairly upset that we turned the TV off and told her to sit at the table and eat. Over and over and over she asked us to turn Mickey back on and she kept asking for crayons and my phone. This isn’t my idea of a happy family dinner and neither is having to listen to children’s shows or to keep reminding my daughter to eat her food while she’s “just watching Mickey!” or “just coloring!” or “just watching babies on Momma’s phone!”
That’s another thing, these distractions just keep your child from the main goal of the meal…eating. And that’s a huge struggle so many of us face! It seems like our children never want to eat and, if they do, it’s only junk food. But part of the reason they don’t want to eat is because they’re so distracted–there are so many other more exciting things they could be doing! When you have a reliable schedule, though, when you always have bath time at 7 o’clock, your child takes a bath, right? When you always have bedtime at 8 o’clock with two stories and a song, your child gets dressed, listens contentedly, and then crawls into bed, right? I’m talking most of the time, not during those exceptions when our kids turn into the Hulk. When there’s a tradition your child has always known, it’s ingrained in their minds; they’re not as rebellious about it. This will never be perfect, they’re going to resist sometimes, of course! But for the most part, every night won’t be a battle. There is no natural need to watch TV and play with toys and eat junk food and ignore adults. The only reason our children engage in this behavior is because we unwittingly encourage it.
So, my advice is this. Make meal time important as many nights during the week as possible (or mornings or afternoons–there is more than one meal a day!). Set aside a specific time for dinner and try to adhere to it, but don’t get too stressed out if you end up eating a little earlier or a little later; it’s also important that your family meals are relaxed and happy, not rushed and stressful. I try to have dinner ready by 6:30/7 every night, but sometimes it’s just out of my hands and I’d rather have a blissful 8 o’clock meal than an unpleasant 6:30 one! Does that screw up the whole schedule? Now everyone’s even hungrier, now dinner is during bath time…Well, I set out some veggies and bread for the hunger…and maybe G will take her bath while I finish cooking and we’ll eat afterward. It’s not the end of the world.
And involve your kids in the meal–have them help you prepare the food, cook, set the table. Children as young as age two can help out–they can add lightweight items you’ve measured out (even “help” you pour heavier ones), sprinkle herbs/seasonings, help stir or mix (you’ll do most of it, but they’ll feel like they did the whole thing). For meals like pasta, soup, or stew, I like to put G’s portion in a cool pot on a cool burner and let her “cook” it all by herself (but I still tell her it’s hot and to watch her hands!). Children (and adults) are more willing participants in eating when they’ve had a hand in preparing their own food; it’s a sense of ownership, of pride. I did that! I can’t wait to eat it! And, yes, it might take longer to complete the meal if your toddler is “helping”, but the end result is going to be so much more satisfying and helpful (in the long-term) than if you rush through the whole process alone and just drop a plate in front of her at the table. Even babies can participate, just put him in a high chair where he can see all the action, or maybe wear him! Baby A loves to watch me chop and is fascinated by the sizzling and steam coming from a pan of hot food. As long as he isn’t hungry or tired, he’ll happily sit, stare, and teeth.
Another way to make the meal process more fun is setting out a small, simple appetizer; it brings everybody into the kitchen where you can socialize (whether someone’s helping you cook or not) and enjoy a little yummy, casual bite together before the meal. Who says that Mom has to stand alone in the kitchen for an hour while everyone else is off watching TV? I like to throw some slices of crusty bread in the oven, drizzled with olive oil and pepper, and let them cook for several minutes until crispy–it can be as easy as that! Top with anything you like, maybe a little grated cheese, maybe some roasted peppers, olive tapenade, whatever! B and I love crostini with roasted red peppers (and maybe a beer and a glass of wine, shhh…) while G snacks on plain crostini with sliced fresh bell pepper on the side. Something that simple can feel really special. And think about this–if you put a vegetable out before dinner, when everyone is at their hungriest, the kids (and your picky husband) are more likely to eat and finish it. In the words of Martha Stewart, “It’s a good thing.” 😉
Once dinner’s ready, turn off the TV and get rid of distractions. Don’t forget to put baby in his high chair at the table or, if necessary, hold him (sometimes I need to feed Baby A while I eat my dinner, another reason to breastfeed because that leaves one hand free)! Consider putting all the food on a big platter to set in the middle of the table (yes, another dish to clean, but just one!) where everyone can help themselves and you and your children can see the beautiful meal that came out of all that effort you just made. Plus, having the food in front of them will encourage your kids to eat it–they’ll see that everyone is eating the same thing and feel like they can get more of whatever they want at any time. Then just sit back and relax! Talk to each other, play a little quiet music, light some candles (this is a lot more enjoyable for kids than you’d think!). Then clean up together–someone brings the dishes to the sink, someone else wipes down the table, someone else washes the dishes. These things don’t have to be a burden; learn to have fun with it all. It’s an easier, funner, happier experience when the whole family is involved and, beyond that, shouldn’t they be anyway?
I think I have one more lesson up my sleeve, all my little tricks to getting my kid (and the hubs) to eat….You know, when all else fails! 🙂 And, after that, I’ll start talking about how to make meal prep easier on yourself (outside of involving the whole family) because we all know that’s nearly an equal obstacle!