How to Nurture Your Family with Dinner Time
The benefits of breaking bread
Dinner time is more than coming to feed at the trough. That’s for animals.
It’s a time to nourish body and soul.
The table is a symbol of sanctuary, community and the hub of a home.
Yes, it takes an effort to get the family around the table.
It needs to be cleared off and set.
Not to mention scheduling. Getting everyone in place at the same time becomes more of a challenge the older the children get.
It’s so much easier to eat in front of the TV, stand at the counter or eat in shifts at the breakfast bar, right?
Food is a form of love, (dysfunction notwithstanding) and sitting down to a gracious table is a loving occasion.
Shared memories of breaking bread build a strong family culture, wholeness, and emotional attachment.
Let’s get practical
Ideally, the dinner table is a place to relax, to have a light-hearted conversation. It shouldn’t be a battleground or the place to hand out discipline and hard talks. Those are for later.
Believe me, with four wiggly children we have had plenty of dinner table melt-downs. But, it’s worth it to keep trying!
If you need some extra motivation, check out The Family Dinner Project.
Family relationships are more important than nutrition – and I think a lot of nutrition.
Canned soup and love is better than gourmet food and strife. I’m pretty sure I read that somewhere.
I had a very young friend, doing her best as a single mom. She beat herself up over her lack of cooking skills. One day she realized she was sitting down every night with her little daughter and if it was boxed mac and cheese, so be it.
Another friend, at the opposite end of parenthood, Skypes with her married daughter while they both make dinner. They set their computers on the counter and have a running conversation – family members popping in and out of the screen as they return home. Two generations, teaching the third to make this family connection a priority.
Cornell University did a great big study on family dinners. Science proves common sense (again) – the family dinner hour can’t be outsourced.
Thinking of the table as a resting place and putting relationships first will go a long way to making the atmosphere pleasant.
In family life, we need to give each other a lot of grace.
Constant haranguing about table manners and your membership in the clean plate club can ruin dinner before the peas get cold.
Is there a place to train children to use manners? Sure, try it at lunch or make it into a fun game.
Do we want them to like a wide variety of foods? You bet! But I’m not willing to trade tears for broccoli.
Pause before the grab.
Regardless of your religious beliefs, this is a ritual every family can observe.
Thank the preparer and the provider of the food, recognize your blessings and abundance, remember family members that can’t be with you.
Not only can this be a spiritual experience, but it will subtlety train your children to wait patiently before eating.
Eat somewhere else
There is a season for many families when it is a major challenge to get everyone around the table at the same time.
As kids get older, evening activities become a threat to a regular family dinner time.
We live a fair distance from town. When we go to town; we stay in town. There isn’t enough time to go home between piano lessons and church. Or for my husband to get home in time to eat before we all need to be somewhere.
The solution to this is far from perfect. But a couple of ideas help.
We often meet my husband at work and eat together in the conference room. It’s after hours, so we aren’t bothering anyone.
Our church has a kitchen and tables available. Many families that live on the outskirts of town take advantage of this before the mid-week service.
During good weather, a park is a great place to eat dinner.
If all else fails, we meet in our car and eat lunch-box style.
Tools for Success
Most ovens have a timer that allows a delayed start and automatic stop.
After a lot of good intentions, I found my oven manual, typed up simple instructions, laminated the page and hung it in a cupboard.
Now, I use the oven timer several times a week.
Take turns picking dinner music.
As kids get older, we can keep tabs on what they’re listening to.
It may result in a little auditory indigestion. Consider it suffering for art.
Centerpieces, candles, tablecloths, placemats, place cards or napkin rings – in any combination, adds a special touch.
Elementary aged children can be kept creatively busy exercising their design skills.
Encourage them to come up with unique centerpieces to celebrate an obscure holiday or National Day of….
Breakfast for dinner
Traditional breakfast foods are often loaded with sugar and simple carbs. Or they take too long to cook on an average morning.
The solution to this is breakfast for dinner. Granted, high-sugar meals are never the best choice, but sugar causes less havoc on energy and brain function at the end of the day.
Trivial Pursuit cards
I pick these up at garage sales and thrift stores. Often brand new.
We keep a box next to the table and pull them out once in awhile to linger around the table.
Trivial Pursuit comes in oodles of editions. From Genius to Star Wars, there’s something for every information geek.
Read letters aloud
Chatty emails, thank you notes, and Christmas letters are fun to read at the dinner table.
The English are on to something with the nursery dinner time. Children eat early and are put to bed early – good for them. Then parents enjoy a leisurely, hot meal with complete sentences – good for them.
But isn’t this the opposite of a family dinnertime? No.
First, it’s for very young children.
The kind that needs their food cut up, their milk mopped up, and the floor hosed down when they’re done. The more children you have, the more hands you need to keep up. Delaying your dinner so you can focus on making it through the meal with a good attitude (yours) helps keep up that good atmosphere we talked about before.
When children get older dinner is a perfect time to fit in a read aloud. Read aloud is good anytime. The real secret here is that while everyone is engaged in a good book, they are not complaining, bickering, kicking under the table or nagging.
I also read to the children when my husband was coming home late. Then I could eat with him.
You will not win any home decorating awards for this one, but you will learn a lot.
Learning placemats are available for dozens of subjects and skills. We still have our collection and pull them out from time to time.
Another favorite memory my kids have is the world map we kept on the table. I bought a big piece of clear vinyl at the fabric store (they will cut it off the roll to fit your table). We had to set up a schedule, so my kids didn’t fight over who got to sit by “grandma’s house.”
We (the parents) didn’t have to say anything about these. The kids initiated spontaneous conversation every night.
“How many presidents have you been alive for dad?” “How about you Grandpa?” Stories always followed.
“Where did this food come from?”
“Where was my T-shirt made?” Check everyone’s clothing tags and be prepared to open up a can of global economy worms!
“How many bones are in our bodies?”
There are commercial sets on the market, but I think it’s more useful to make up your own questions.
Consider seasonal themes.
Here’s a little help to get the conversation going:
101 Conversation Starters People Love
And for the younger crowd, these dinnertime conversation hearts are darling – this idea would be fun any day of the year.
Once in awhile eat in a special – even quirky – place.
A TV tray meal becomes a major treat if you don’t do it very often.
Here are a few ideas:
Setting up a small table front of the fire, to celebrate the first day of fall (or cold weather).
A blanket under a tree in the backyard.
Pillows around the coffee table.
On the porch.
In different rooms of the house.
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Lifeskills – What this teaches our children
As soon as they are able, have your children help. They can be involved in the set-up, cooking, serving, and clean up.
It’s part of family life. When they are older you will be thankful they know their way around a kitchen.
One of my great joys is the choreography of cooking with my grown daughters. This kitchen dance comes from many years of preparing meals together.
Cooking is filled with opportunity to apply logic and problem-solving.
One way is through preparation.
My mother-in-law taught her sons to set a complete table with a little poem – they still know it.
I won’t share it because it has a definite 60’s nutrition feel, (most families don’t eat white bread at every meal anymore).
The principle is still sound. Avoid jumping up and down from the table by thinking through what will be needed.
Here’s a post by Design Mom on Making the Most of Mealtime
Manners are best introduced at a meal besides dinner.
Since I was home with the kids, I tried to do this at breakfast and lunch.
As long as everyone is having fun, it can be a game.
Simple and humble, or elaborate and gourmet – it doesn’t matter how fancy the food is.
What is important are the people gathered around it.
Dinner time takes work on someone’s part.
Like all important family routines, it pays off in a healthy family. Both mentally and physically.