When was the last time that your family sat down together for a meal? Last night? Last week? Last month? The start of school means the beginning or continuing of activities that typically ignore family meals. We rush from one activity to another with our children, sometimes juggling more than one activity for each child. After getting home, doing homework, taking baths and all those other things that have to be done, it’s past bedtime and no one has taken the time for dinner unless you went through a drive-thru or picked up the phone.
How do you reclaim mealtime in your family? Here are a few strategies that work for some families:
Make it a family priority to share meals. Establish the importance of shared mealtime with your partner and children. Insist that everyone make the commitment and stick to it. Issue a family challenge to eat at least one meal per day four days a week for the coming two weeks.
Declare shared meals to be “sacred” family time. Set a beginning and ending time and devote the meal to talking and having fun as a family. Turn off the TV and phones. Insist that texts be read and answered after the meal. Ban books and newspapers unless they are being shared with everyone.
Be flexible about when, where and what. Shared meals don’t have to be at the same time every day or gourmet fare. Remember that the focus is on talking and being together and not just rushing. If a parent or child can’t make it until later in the evening, have a healthy snack so that the meal can be put off until everyone is home. If you cannot eat together every evening, start with several evenings a week and write them on the calendar. If evenings don’t work, try mornings. If it is important to family members, you can find time for shared meals.
Reduce pre-dinner stress. The time just before dinner is often challenging, especially if you have young children. You are busy and your little ones are hungry, crabby and clingy. Make a simple healthy snack part of the routine, such as cheese and crackers or carrots and dip. Have a predinner activity box that has crayons, markers and paper for drawing pictures of daily activities to be discussed during the meal.
Make some meals fun and creative. Occasionally move away from your typical meals. Create family traditions such as family picnic night where simple meals can be eaten on the deck or in a nearby park. Our family used to have indoor picnics. That’s where we threw a blanket on the living room floor and ate there. Have a monthly theme night with a meal focused on a current event or different culture. Assign simple tasks to each family member: someone to plan the menu, another to plan a simple activity. Family members can dress according to the theme. The point is to make shared meals enjoyable and not simply an obligation.
Encourage relaxed conversation and avoid controversial topics and discipline during mealtime. Let everyone have a turn talking and institute a “no bickering” rule where violators might have to load the dishwasher or some other task. Ban topics that are strictly for adults such as mortgage rates or marital problems. While table manners as well as the amount and type of food eaten are important, power struggles can sabotage shared meals. Try to model appropriate manners and eating habits. This is often more effective than nagging about these issues during meals. The goal of shared meals is focusing on family members in a personal way. These conversations involve talking without trying to accomplish some task or allowing our minds to wander.
Coordinating family members’ schedules to include shared meals can be challenging. But don’t you think it’s worth the effort?
Carrie T. Brazeal is the Family and Consumer Sciences Agent for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 972.548.4233 or metro 972.424.1460. Ext. 4233.