Family mealtimes are a key experience for a family whether they stop and think about it or not. With both parents and children having busy schedules, parents may worry what can they actually accomplish with a sit down meal? The answer is a lot actually.
There are many benefits to eating a sit-down meal together as a family. It offers parents a time to share good habits through modeling healthy nutrition choices as well as a time to teach children table manners.
In addition to the focus on healthy food habits and manners, mealtimes are social activities and continue to be throughout our lives. The average American family meal lasts about eighteen minutes by the time everyone sits down to eat until everyone finishes eating their food. Use that time wisely. The family mealtime should be a time to talk, engage and laugh with each other. Use this time as a parent to:
- Check in and see how each member of the family is doing socially, physically, and mentally
- Teach language skills to younger children through mealtime conversation
- Share family stories about yourself and other family members
- Communicate family values
If dinner time is a bad time for your family, make sure this happens at breakfast or another meal. Hopefully as a family you can sit down to three to four (or more) meals a week together as a family.
Initiate conversation by asking open ended questions instead of yes/no questions. Create fun questions for people to ask each other and put them in a basket to pass around on various nights or when people are being quiet. Some random questions that may get family members talking could include:
- If you had to eat the something every day for a year what would it be?
- If you could have lunch with anyone famous – who would it be?
- If you had a free day to do anything you wanted, what would you do?
- What do you want to be when you grow up and why?
- If you could learn one new hobby or skill what would it be?
(Everyone including the parents needs to answer the questions as they go around the table)
Have everyone in your family create or spontaneously come up with a question randomly as you need to engage the family.
If there are lulls in conversation, it is ok to have some silence at dinner, but it also important to ask everyone how their day was and check in. Some people don't share unless they are invited to open up about something. They are just waiting for that opportunity and if it doesn't present itself, then they don't.
The dinner table is also a great place for families to problem solve for each other and offer support. When a child has something that is upsetting them at school, they can share their trouble and then siblings and parents can offer some suggestions to help or help them problem solve over the dinner meal.
If you already know that a child is struggling with something, then dinnertime may not be when you want to bring focus and attention to that issue. Later, after dinner, in a less public space may be a better place to focus on an area that you already know is causing some trouble for a child such as struggles in a class.
Be aware of the roadblocks to communication in your family:
- Is the TV on?
- Are people reading at the table? Books, magazines, newspapers?
- Are people on electronic devices?
As Doris Christopher, Founder of the Pampered Chef, Ltd., once said, "The table is where we mark milestones, divulge dreams, bury hatchets, make deals, give thanks, plan vacations and tell jokes." There are so many opportunities for kids to be engaged with a screen, mealtimes should be focused on the family and the social aspect to develop good communication skills and lasting bonds.