Meaningful Mealtimes: Tips For Honoring Family Dinner

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My daughter was talking with an adult recently who asked if she and her family usually eat dinner together. My daughter gave her a typical ten-year-old side eye and said, “Doesn’t everyone eat dinner with their family?” Sassiness aside, I was pretty proud that I’ve succeeded in making family dinner time a no-brainer for our family.

Mad at Mom and Dad for some unreasonable expectation like…oh, picking your nasty socks up off the floor? Ok, but you’re still going to sit down to dinner with us. No going to your room with a plate of microwaved pizza just because you don’t want to look at us. Starving to death, but your brother has late practice? Have a granola bar and suck it up—we will be having dinner when he gets here, even if it’s 8:45. Don’t like anything being served tonight? Grab the peanut butter and sit down—we will be having dinner together, at the table, like it or not.

Family dinner has well-established benefits for children.

Studies show that children who regularly share mealtime with their families have a better vocabulary, earn higher grades, are less prone to obesity, and are less likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol.

But it takes effort. Cranky kids, picky eaters, and long days can make it less than satisfying.

Tips To Make Family Dinner Realistic

Cooking is a big job. It’s a part-time job to plan, shop, and prepare food for a family of five every week. So here are a few of the things I’ve learned that help me get a meal on the table most nights of the week:

  1. Have a plan. I keep our family’s favorite recipes on a board on Pinterest. This makes it super easy to figure out what I want to cook this week. I might have a new recipe or two in mind that I’d like to try, but most days I can easily fill in with tried and true favorites.
  2. Keep a stocked pantry. If my plans have fallen through, I almost always have enough in the pantry and freezer to throw something together. The ingredients for chili, pasta carbonara, tomato soup, taco pizza, and spaghetti are almost always on hand.
  3. Double recipes. I always strive to have leftovers. If I cook some chicken teriyaki with vegetables and rice one night, I make extra chicken so we can have chicken teriyaki subs another night. When I roast broccoli, I make two pans instead of one so tomorrow’s side dish is already done. If nothing else, freeze the extra so all you need to do on a busy night is reach in the fridge.
  4. Make it a team effort. Have the kids do some age-appropriate work. Mine started by putting silverware and condiments on the table. Now, they are up to chopping vegetables, browning the meat, and even following an entire recipe.

After figuring out the logistics, it’s important to have a vision of how you want your time together to be. There’s no better way to ruin a lovely dinner than a kid barfing up part of the meal you just spent two hours preparing because he HATES the peppers/zucchini/olives/whatever disgusting thing you put in there. (HOW COULD YOU?) There are, of course, several other perfectly sufficient ways to ruin dinner as well, so I have made a few simple rules for our family that keeps everything sane. No, I’m not going for magical or Pinterest-worthy. Just sane, do-able, frequent, and pleasant. I want dinner to be a ritual that everyone in our family finds, at the very least, consistent, calm, and comforting amidst our crazy lives.

Tips to Make Family Dinner Meaningful 

  1. You don’t have to love the food, but you do have to respect the cook. I love to cook, and I don’t always make the most kid-friendly meals. As a result, my kids say things like, “Ohh, garlic aioli is delicious!” totally impressing my friends. This also means that sometimes they don’t like what I’ve made. For a while, this leads to them saying things like, “Gross! This is disgusting,” and to me about losing my sh….marbles on too many occasions. Now, we have a rule that you need to be kind even if you really can’t take one more bite. Now I hear things like, “Thanks for working really hard on this dinner, Mom, but it’s not my favorite. Can I heat up leftovers instead?” This leads to my next rule.
  2. You have to eat something healthy, even if it isn’t what I cooked. As a child, I had way too many meals ruined by my sister refusing to eat what was served, resulting in arguing, crying, or worst of all, throwing up. Even though I am deeply committed to my children being healthy eaters, I refuse to let it go down the same way at our table. You will still find peppers, salad, mushrooms, and brussels sprouts on my table frequently. I also try to make sure there is something the picky eater will like, even if it is just applesauce or carrot sticks. The rule for myself—when someone picks mushrooms out of the casserole, don’t get bent out of shape. Let it go. None of that is worth ruining dinner.
  3. Have a ritual. Some families say grace; others share the best and worst things that happened that day. We say what we are thankful for. This ritual did not stem out of the goodness of my heart. Several years ago, I was a mama who had had it UP TO HERE with all the whining my little ones were doing about all the things they didn’t have, couldn’t do, weren’t allowed, and all the things they HAD to do which they hated (chores, being kind to their siblings, eating healthy food, etc.). So at dinner one evening, I declared we weren’t going to eat a single bite until each one of us said at least one thing we were thankful for. A tradition was born. We have done it at nearly every meal since.
  4. No phones or other devices. Obviously.
  5. Another rule that is mostly for me—be flexible. At this stage in life, the kids are busy with practices and events way more than I’d like. It often disrupts our ideal dinnertime. I have to be more flexible to make it happen. Some nights we eat late. Sometimes “dinner” doesn’t have to just mean eating together in the evening and Sunday brunch becomes our family meal for the day instead. Making it happen is more important than making it perfect. 

Even if they don’t always remember the food or the conversations, I hope my children remember our meals together as times of love, comfort, and connection that they can carry with them always.

Do you make family mealtimes a priority at your house? How do you make it meaningful and pleasant for everyone? 

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Cincinnati has been my home since graduating from college, and thanks to all the friends I have made here, I am happy to now call it home. I am Mom to three teenagers so life is never boring at our house. While we homeschooled for several years, we are slowly aging out of that adventure and into the new territory of dating, driving, college applications and who knows what next! When my mom hat isn't on, I squeeze in a few of my other loves–exploring our city, crafting, reading, kayaking, hiking, gardening, traveling, and teaching people to take good care of their skin through my Mary Kay business. Oh, and of course writing!

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