When I ask parents about their experience with family mealtime, I often hear stories about the connections that happen unexpectedly around the table. Many describe unplanned, high-stakes conversations that keep these families prioritizing the time it takes to make family meals successful. On the other hand, families have also shared that after putting in the effort to organize family meals, the resulting frustration of tantrums and fights at the table is too overwhelming. Others lament that the exhaustion from the day simply overpowers their effort.
My family is no exception to these experiences. I remember laughing hysterically at my daughter’s description of her days at preschool over mashed potatoes. We were eating enchiladas when my son described his new kindergarten classmates. But, I also remember spending over an hour preparing meals no one would touch, and times when the kids were arguing so fiercely that they spent much of family meal in time out. Some nights, I just want to eat out and let someone else do the cooking.
I think most parents know that family meals are a good thing. Research has supported the benefits of eating together as a family for many years. The physical, social, and psychological benefits are only increasing in value as the pace of our lives is quickening, and time spent truly engaged with our kids is progressively limited.
I am also a realist. I know that if planning and preparing meals becomes a burden, it simply won't happen. That’s why my family and I set our School Year’s Resolution this year to focus on family dinner and try not to eat out so much. Sometimes just setting a goal together can help us stick to it.
Over the years, I have learned some tips and tricks that allow our family (2 working parents, 2 kids) to get around the table most nights of the week. Here are 5 of my favorites to help make family meals a pleasure for everyone.
1. The routine of family meals takes practice. As with any new habit, it is hard to interrupt a schedule with new responsibilities. Remember that the health and wellness benefits of family meals happen with only 3 family meals per week. Just 3! So give yourself an allowance for change and start small. These meals don't have to be long, arduous, 7-course productions. Start with preparing a simple family favorite. Don't know how to cook? No problem. There are many online tutorials and free apps that will teach everything from boiling water to flambé. And if time at the table is challenging, set the kitchen timer for 20 minutes. Commit those minutes to tech-free, uninterrupted time. When you begin to see the benefits of the routine, eliminate the clock.
2. Find helpers. Gone are the days of randomly filing through recipe cards and cookbooks. Planning meals and getting grocery lists is easy with new tools to help. Search online for meal planning subscriptions that include recipes and prepared grocery lists. Look to free cooking apps for meal ideas on the go. Some communities now have grocery delivery services, taking the chore of the store off the list. Even easier, meal delivery services are now available that will automatically bring portioned ingredients, recipes, and cooking lessons to your door in a refrigerated box. These services keep the cost down, but the efficiency up. Plus, they often include new recipes or ingredients for the family to try. I use a combination of all of these helpers depending on the anticipated schedule of the week ahead. This allows our family to accomplish our goal of getting to the table, while limiting the stress that meal planning can create.
3. Don't trash your work. Over time, your lists and recipe sets will create a great resource for your family. The same planning list can be used again and again. Your collection of weekly lists will become months of valuable information to grab-and-go, making the work of planning much easier in the future. My old meal planning lists are ugly, wrinkled, and stained. But when I am in a pinch for time, they glimmer like gold.
4. Family meals don't have to be dinners. Going out Saturday night? Have plans away from home? Try a family lunch. What about family breakfast? The goals of family meals are eating healthier food and creating tech-free time with those you love. The clock does not define these goals.
5. It's not just up to you. Kids as young as 2 can begin helping with meal planning and table preparation. Beginning in elementary school, kids are able to begin simple cooking tasks. Working with your kids in the kitchen allows distribution of the responsibilities and shows cooking as a valued life skill. Cooking is also full of math, science, problem solving, and reading for kids of all ages. Full-family participation allows individuality and personality of every family member to shine. Plus, family traditions and memories can be created when you least expect it.
I know the health benefits of family meals. Their significance cannot be understated. However, family meal times have deeper meaning for me. Eating at the table is a unifier, a haven. It allows every one of us to connect with the people who will be present in our lives with greatest consistency and importance, and join together in the experience of life. There will never be greater reward than prioritizing precious minutes with people that you love. These are things that matter.
Enjoy food. Enjoy family. Cheers.