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The Family Table

by Brittney Schrick - August 18, 2017

For busy families, sometimes the last thing a parent wants to think about is trying to sit down together to eat a meal. It may be the only time all day the parents have been able to speak to each other. It may be the only time the cook of the family can to be alone. Your table may have been taken over by homework or clutter. It may feel impossible to connect after a long day apart. Whatever reasons you may have for not sitting down together on most nights of the week, I challenge you to reevaluate them and consider the value of The Family Table.

Years of research has supported the family table as a source of connection and interaction.

A boost to well-being and a place to learn healthy habits such as portion control and paying attention to hunger and fullness cues. Kids who eat regular meals around a table with their families do better in school, have higher self-esteem, and are less likely to engage in risky behavior such as substance use as teenagers. 

Sometimes, this prescription feels overwhelming or impossible. For example, if your family eats together only rarely because of schedules or habit, it may feel like a daunting task or an unrealistic idea to increase the amount of time your family spends together around a table; however, the benefits are many, and the risks are few. Here are some tips that you can use today to start your family down the road to mealtime connection.

Getting Started with family meals: 

family of four eating dinner at the kitchen table
Keeping screens away from the dinner table encourages conversation and interaction with kids. It's all about connecting!

If you have a spouse, co-parent, or other adult in the house, get them on board. It is important that you be on the same page. They don't have to fully understand why family meals are important, but if they are grumpy or otherwise negative, kids may be more resistant.

Keep things simple. In the past, you may have only eaten special holiday meals at the table together. If so, you may be thinking that a table meal must be spectacular. Not so! Even if you are eating PB&J on paper plates, you can still sit down and eat them together. 

Start small. If this is new to your family, set a small goal of one or two nights a week together at the table to start out. If you try to go from 0 to 7 right out of the gate, you may give up if you miss one. Start with a couple and then work up to more. 

Turn off screens. Leave phones, tablets, and other devices elsewhere in the house, and don't allow them at the table (that goes for the adults too!). Turn off the TV. An occasional meal in front of the TV can be fun, but it can lead to disconnection and some poor eating habits if most meals are eaten in front of the TV. If your family needs background noise, consider turning on music you all enjoy. 

Keep kids' preferences in mind (but don't let them dictate the menu). Offering kids at least one thing at every meal that you know they will eat makes meals far more pleasant for all concerned. Kids take an average of 7 times trying a new food before they like it. Forcing kids to eat foods they don't like is often counter-productive, and it can cause issues with food down the road. Don't feel the need to make them different food if they don't eat their supper, but don't force them to clean their plates if they are full or really don't like a dish. Offer a variety of foods when possible. 

Relax. Unless you really are in a hurry, avoid rushing through meals. Everyone makes better choices and the meal is much happier if no one feels rushed.

Be patient and practical. If you have something on the schedule that evening, don't spend your entire meal rushing everyone to finish so you can leave. Either choose that meal as one that isn't around the table or offer something that can be eaten and cleaned up quickly. 

Consider your children's developmental needs. Toddlers and babies have short attention spans. Giving them food and then expecting them to sit in a chair and eat slowly is not realistic. They cannot be expected to sit in one place for more than 10 to 15 minutes. Older children have longer attention spans, so they may be able to stretch a meal out to 30 minutes or even longer. Having realistic ideas of what your children are capable of will make the whole process less stressful.

Engage. Maybe small talk is incredibly boring to you. Maybe you find talking to a toddler torturous. Even if those are true, talking to kids is never wasted time. Ask them questions and let them answer them. Let them ask you questions and respond with your best. You won't always be able to do this perfectly, but the benefits of connection around the table are undeniable, and it is well worth the effort. This is also a time you can connect with your partner through shared time. 

How to connect at family mealtimes

Talking about your day is easier some days than others. It is also easier for some people to engage in this sort of conversation than it is for others. While talking about the day, current events, and what's coming up in the family can be entertaining sometimes, it can also lead to fairly brief conversations (especially when older kids and teens start answering questions like "What happened at school today?" with "Nothing."). How can you get around this lag?

1. Designate a child or adult as the questioner of the day. It is their job to come up with new questions to ask everyone if conversation stops. Things like "If you could move anywhere in the world, where would you go?" or "What was your favorite thing that happened this week?" These prompts can help spur conversation and help families get to know one another better. There are lots of places online you can find lists of questions to print out or pull ideas from. Visit our Pinterest boards for more ideas! 

2. Play a game. I-Spy, 20 questions, Would You Rather?, or other similar games can be fun ways to engage. 

3. Focus your attention on the people at the table, not on other things such as what needs to be done after supper or how that meeting didn't go the way you wanted it to. 

What can I do now?

Plan! What needs to be done today to make your next supper a sit-down meal? Do you need to clean off your table or other eating area? Do you need to plan a meal? Start mentally preparing in advance.

Start thinking of your table or other eating surface as sacred. Don't allow it to get too cluttered, or, if you do, take the time to clean it off so that it can be used for meals.

Encourage yourself and your family. No family is perfect, but every family can do meals together. If you eat out more than you eat in, talk to one another around the restaurant table. If you don't have a table, sit at the kitchen counter (or even stand around it), have a floor picnic, or consider purchasing or salvaging a table and chairs to use for family meals. If you can't cook well, consider finding simple recipes or healthy prepared meals to serve. Engage your children in meal preparation and clean up to extend the amount of time you spend together and teach them valuable life skills. 

If it doesn't go as planned, try again. The benefits of eating together far outweigh the risks. Like anything, it takes practice and trial and error. What works for one family may be a bust for another. The common goal is to eat meals together to connect with one another. How that looks for your family will be different than how it looks for mine. 

Good luck, and happy eating!

Resources:

MPFL Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/UAEXFamilyLife/pins/

https://www.uaex.edu/publications/PDF/FCS576.pdf

http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/benefits_of_eating_meals_together_as_a_family

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/07/the-importance-of-eating-together/374256/

https://thefamilydinnerproject.org/