Let’s be honest – putting a meal together is a lot of work. Unless you’re Emily Gilmore and your house comes equipped with a fully staffed kitchen, planning, preparing, and cleaning up after a meal isn’t exactly a stress-free activity. Family meals are an endeavor well worth the time and effort. In fact, they’re a crucial part of developing a child’s relationship with food. But they won’t do anyone a lot of good if no one wants to come to the table.
If you don’t enjoy eating vegetables, the act of doing so becomes pretty tough! Family meals can be quite the same. If preparing meals becomes another chore, you may find yourself asking, “why bother?”
Sometimes, when patience is low and the dishes are high, we all need a little reminder that what we’re doing matters. And doing what matters gets a lot easier when we love to do it. Maybe you don’t regularly eat meals together and you’re wondering why you should or how you even could. Maybe you do – but you dread it so much that you wish you didn’t. Whatever your current mealtime routine (or lack thereof), here are a few things to consider if you’re wondering how to make family meals more enjoyable.
Striving for Perfection Won’t Make Meals Enjoyable
My husband and I are the kind of people who are pretty much, without fail, always running behind. And adding a toddler into the mix sure hasn’t done us any favors. In our house, dinner is theoretically at 7 p.m. And I do mean theoretically, because let’s face it – even 7:15 is a stretch sometimes. Maybe there are more nights when we throw our hands up and decide we’re getting takeout than I care to admit (tacos, anyone?). But despite our sometimes-flawed execution, eating together is non-negotiable for us.
While it’s true that eating meals cooked in your own home more frequently has been found to be associated with better diet quality, that doesn’t mean that all is lost if you don’t have time to cook dinner this evening. Ordering takeout certainly isn’t the end of the world. And you’ll still reap the benefits of enjoying a pleasant meal together – which is just worth as much as the nutritional content of your food. So, you’ve had a day and you can’t escape the allure of ordering a pizza. Call it a day, forgive yourself, and enjoy that pizza together.
Who Says Family Meals Have To Mean Family DINNER?
Admittedly, there haven’t been a lot of studies to delineate the effects family dinner versus family breakfast. But sharing a meal is sharing a meal. Remember, you are much more likely to reap the benefits of family mealtime if you’re enjoying it!
For us, breakfast together is totally doable on the weekends. But Monday through Friday? Let’s not kid ourselves. We are not getting out of bed an hour earlier to match my husband’s early morning start (did I mention that we are not early risers?). But maybe you’re the kind of person who springs out of bed ready to take on the day. Perhaps you find yourself dragging in the evenings after a full day staring down dinner like it’s your mortal enemy. Adapt, overcome, and embrace breakfast!
In fact, while family breakfast may be dinner’s less-celebrated-but-equally-awesome sibling, there are plenty of resources dedicated to just that floating around that you may find helpful! Making family meals more enjoyable means making them work for you.
Setting the Table (and the Scene) is No Small Thing
Have you ever heard the phrase “we eat with our eyes first“? There’s some truth to that. In fact, all of the senses affect how we perceive taste. And it seems to go beyond the properties of the food itself. Meals just seem more enjoyable when the space around you is neat, tidy, and pleasant!
Likewise, positive social interactions at the table go a long way. Imagine trying to enjoy your food while someone relentlessly screams into your ear. That sounds like a pretty bad meal to me! Now imagine a nice calm setting where relaxing piano music plays softly in the background. Which do you prefer? No brainer, right? Of course, these are extreme examples. But you get the picture! Keep mealtime positivity in focus by keeping the conversation positive (including both food and non-food-related topics), setting clear but reasonable boundaries (remember the purpose of feeding), and mitigating distractions by turning off technology to tune into your food and each other!
Keeping a positive atmosphere is important whether or not your child is a selective eater – but it is important to note that selective eaters may feel particularly anxious at the table, which in turn may cause them to feel less hungry. Remember that children often pick up on our anxieties, so finding pleasure in our own meals can’t be overstated. How can you enjoy your meal if you are constantly worried about your child’s intake? It will become noticeable. And it won’t help your child’s appetite. Hence, making family meals more enjoyable means enjoying them yourself.
A Word About the Benefits of Eating Together
Maybe after all of this talk about enjoying meals together, you’re still wondering why. Or maybe you’ve already seen the multitude of articles praising family meals for benefits such as improved academic performance and protective effects in adolescence. Maybe you’ve also seen articles asserting that benefits gleaned from family meals come solely from time spent together and have pretty much nothing to do with eating itself.
While I am not going to rehash any of that here, I do want to make a quick note regarding family meals and nutritional outcomes. It’s easy to take for granted that eating skills are a learned behavior. But they are. And I am hard-pressed to think of a substitute for teaching children these skills without modeling them through shared mealtimes (at least some of the time).
So, while there are definitely other ways to bond that don’t include sharing a meal, remember that mealtime is not just about building a relationship with each other. It’s also about building a relationship with food.
Wrapping it All up to Go
Parents, on any given day we are staring down a full plate of our own. When we pile more on top of the already heaping spread before us, it’s easy to feel like we have taken on more than we can swallow. Remember, suffering through meals you feel obligated to have won’t do anyone any good. So, I’m encouraging you to take small bites. Learning how to make meals more enjoyable for you and your family takes time.
If you don’t already eat together or wish you did more regularly, dedicate just one meal per week this month to sitting down to a meal together. Stick to it, even if the food you’re sharing isn’t gourmet or homecooked. Just schedule a day and time, eat food, and enjoy. Maybe you’re already having regular meals together once or even a couple of times a week – this month, try adding just one more! And above all, focus on relishing the food and the company before you every single time.
Disclaimer: The information on this site is in no way intended to be a substitute for medical advice. It is intended for general informational purposes only. Always seek personalized medical advice and consult your practitioner with questions regarding your or your child’s health.