Regular family meals together may seem like something of the past. An idealized dream we can only picture in our minds. Father pulls mother’s chair out for her as they sit down to an ornately decorated table. Passing the rice pilaf, candied yams, and stewed pork roast to the left, the children cordially answer mother’s and father’s inquiries about their schoolwork and social engagements. And everyone stays afterwards to do the dishes while singing tunes from "Bye Bye Birdie” before they retire to the perfectly trimmed backyard to play fetch with the dog.
Sounds more like an episode of "Leave It to Beaver” than your reality, right? These days, "mealtime” more likely goes like this: Brother swings by Wendy’s with the guys on his way home from band practice, sister microwaves something from the freezer when she gets home late from drill team, and mom gets take-out at the office because she’s working late. So dad microwaves a burrito and sits down to watch SportsCenter in the living room. Let’s find a way to make "Leave It to Beaver” and reality meet halfway, shall we?
Eating together as a family is more than a dream. It’s a necessity. If we get too caught up in the whirlwind of work and social life to spend daily quality time with our family, our priorities can slip out of focus. Family meals can be an anchor. A few moments of quiet sanity amidst the chaos of life. But how can we make them happen?
How to make it work
Having a quiet meal together may seem unrealistic. But remember, it doesn’t have to be ideal. Even if you just end up pulling a frozen lasagna out of the oven and throwing it on paper plates while sipping diet soda, the important thing is that you’re eating together. You don’t have to get out grandmother’s china and prepare a seven-course meal to have quality time with one another.
It’s important that you have family meals at a set time. Put it on the calendar if you have to. Even if everyone’s schedule only allows it from 6:35 to 7:10 on some days and 8:15 to 8:40 on others, make it a scheduled event and it will become a priority. Make sure that the TV is off, newspapers and books are put away, and that everyone has an opportunity to pay attention to one another. Having meals together won’t do much if everyone’s attention is elsewhere.
One idea is to have family members take turns planning and preparing a meal. If children are able to plan and make something they like, they will be that much more willing to participate regularly. It also will help teach them responsibility and help them appreciate the hard work that goes into feeding a family. Even small children can help with clearing the table and doing dishes. Allow teens to invite a friend to dinner on their night. Remember, mealtime should be a fun experience, not a sentence to carry out, so keep it fun and casual.
What to eat
Having family meals together can help you eat more healthy as a family. And if you start having healthy meals when your children are young, they will be much more likely to practice good eating habits throughout their lives. Don’t feel obligated to have a steaming pork roast or slow-cooked stew every night. Keep things fresh, simple, and easy. Having a variety is a good way to avoid excessive complaining from younger children.
What to talk about
So what do you do now that you’ve got everyone together for a few precious moments to eat a decent meal? Talk to one another. Ask your kids what they did that day. Learn about their friends, challenges, and schoolwork. Ask them about books they have read or movies they have seen recently. Save lecturing and instruction for another time, when you can speak to children one on one. Everyone should feel comfortable and welcome at mealtime.
You can also take advantage of having everyone together and talk about calendars and plans. If your children are busy with practices to attend and rides to be coordinated, mealtime can be very valuable for logistic as well as social discussions. Family meals do not have to be perfect. They just need to happen. And every day you make it happen you will be building a closer home, a stronger family, and a healthier life for you and your children.