At least, that is what we have been told by dozens of child psychologists and specialists. Family meals have been a soap-box issue since before most of us were even parents. You would think that by now this would be a parenting practice we would have under control. Still, it is so hard to spend a little less than an hour around the table a few nights a week.
First, I need to manage to cook a meal. Here's the deal, 6 p.m. sure does sneak up fast when there are diapers to change and children to keep safe and entertained. In addition to how quickly the day flies, there is always my younger daughter, clutching my pant leg, utterly offended by having to share my attention with the stove.
Then, there is the actually getting there. My husband doesn't exactly work late each night, but he navigates roughly an hour of rush hour traffic—clocking in as dad right around 6 p.m. Every single day I aim to wait until he gets home to start digging in, but it's honestly so damn hard. By 5:30 p.m., the girls are cranky and my blood sugar is dropping and dinner is hopefully finished and looking oh-so inviting.
I am learning there are a lot of tired and overused tips for family meals—and they aren't cutting it.
Still, I swore to myself this would be the summer I accomplished my goal of eating together a minimum of three times a week. I am afraid if I don't make this a habit now, while my kids are young, it will never happen in the future when there are after-school activities to compete with. In my struggle to get us all around the table, I am learning there are a lot of tired and overused tips for family meals—and they aren't cutting it.
So, I have been forced to get a little creative, to find new ways to accomplish and enjoy the family meal. Here's a few things that are working for us:
1. Forget family dinner, let's have family breakfast
My girls are up at the crack of dawn anyway, why not connect over pancakes and eggs—or heck, even peanut butter toast?
My beloved afternoon snack is getting it's fair share of criticism these days. If that 4 o'clock handful of chocolate bunnies and raisins is my only hope at keeping two hungry toddlers happy until dinner time, I won't be saying goodbye any time soon.
3. Take out for the win
For those days when dinner time sneaks up on me, I am giving myself permission to opt for take-out when cooking isn't going to happen.
4. Give up on gourmet
Walk away from the Pinterest board, and opt for cold-cut sandwiches eaten off of paper plates every once in a while. Placing too high of an emphasis on what you are eating can distract from the main goal of family dinners: connection.
5. Make it special, but keep it simple
I adore this tip suggesting you make a small effort to make your dinner table a sacred space. This isn't meant to be an elaborate ritual. A few of my favorite suggestions: Say a blessing, light a candle, eat from a decluttered and clean table or off of a special table cloth.
6. Practice Gratitude
Use this time with your family to teach your children gratitude through leading by example. This can be as casual as commenting on the yummy food to establishing a routine of naming off things you are thankful for.
7. Set dinner time rules
If family meals are a struggle, you may find it beneficial to set a few rules for both children and adults. I'm not talking about keeping your elbows off of the table, even though family meals are a great time to teach manners. I am talking about the big offenses that get in the way of enjoying this time together. No phones. No teasing. No unpleasant conversation. No conflict.
At the start of your week, sit down and detail out the next seven days. Choose the nights you plan to have a dinner as a family and write it down. Treat your family meals as if they are appointments or dates. Protect that time, and prioritize it above any other activities or tasks.