10 Tips for Successful Family Dinners

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I adore this photograph of my grandparents and their brood posing Norman Rockwell style just before feasting on what was sure to be a delicious homemade Christmas dinner prepared by my grandmother, Agnes, sitting at the head of the table.

Can you imagine trying to feed and nourish all these little munchkins? And, by the way, Agnes likely has a bun in the oven on this Christmas Day in 1948. They would soon be adding another leaf to the table making room for my Aunt Jean followed by my Uncle Steve who have yet to arrive.

When I decided to make feeding my family well a priority a few years ago, I often found myself thinking of the generations that came before me. I thought about my grandmothers, two very smart and accomplished women who were destined to make babies (lots of them!) thanks to the opinions of the Catholic Church, and how they must have been relegated to the kitchen most of their days in order to prepare enough food to feed their ever-expanding families. I thought about my mother, running through the door after a long day at the office donning her usual pantsuit and pearls carrying a single bag of spaghetti noodles, a head of lettuce and the 5 ingredients she would need to make her famous homemade sauce to feed me, my brother and my dad.

These women, despite their own generational challenges (my mother always trying to balance work and family life and my grandmothers who, I’m certain, would’ve traded places with their husbands in a nanosecond if they had the chance), somehow made feeding their families home-cooked meals work.

After years of acting as if food didn’t matter to me, as if eating together as a family didn’t matter, I finally decided, as my mother and my grandmothers did, to just make it work.

But my challenges were different than the previous generations. I had three children who were accustom to snacking on pretzels and juice boxes whenever they felt like it. My children had become so used to the taste of hotdogs, fries, chicken nuggets, frozen pizzas and noodles that trying anything new was going to be tough, really tough. We also had an after school schedule of extra-curricular activities that made preparing food and sitting down together a complete impossibility. To top it off, my daughter had a slew of severe food allergies. Coming up with meals that were safe for her that everyone else would enjoy felt like a daunting task.

Yet I yearned for a simpler time when families sat down together and everyone ate the food that was lovingly prepared for them without complaint and they talked about their days and reminisced about the past and made plans for the future.

It has been a group effort for us. Children had to cut back on activities. My husband had to alter his work schedule to be home by 6. I had to make time to get to the store and plan ahead. But today the five of us eat a homemade dinner at a set table almost every night of the week.

Don’t get me wrong. It is far from perfect. Sometimes I have a sulky teenager who refuses to touch his food. Sometimes the kids fight. Sometimes someone has a meltdown (me).  Sometimes my attempt at cooking a new dish fails miserably and the hotdogs come out. But, for the most part, it’s pleasant. We’re spending quality time together every day and my children are finally learning how to eat.

I put together a list of tips that helped my family stay focused as we transitioned to family dinners. Maybe it will help you, too. Good luck!

Ten Tips for Successful Family Dinners

  1. Commit to eating home together as a family at least 5 days a week. This might mean cutting back on extra-curricular activities that interfere with dinnertime. If 5 days is too much at first, try 3 or even 1. Whatever you decide, commit to it and stick with it.
  2. Prepare meals that you would want to eat. What inspires you and would make you feel nourished and satisfied? If no one else enjoys it, at least you will.
  3. Share the duties. One parent does the cooking, the other does the dishes. Or the kids can do the dishes if they’re old enough.  Most kids can set the table by the time they are 6.
  4. No more short-order cooking! Do you think my grandmothers who had 13 children between them would ever make an extra meal for a picky eater? No way.
  5. Sit down at a table with no distractions. That means no tvs, phones or screens during mealtime. That goes for parents, too!
  6. Don’t force anyone to eat. I tried this. It will only backfire. Allow the children to decide what of what is prepared they will eat and how much.
  7. Avoid rewarding good eating with dessert. Children get more than enough sweets and sugary snacks throughout their day. Dessert should be saved for special occasions.
  8. It’s a family affair. Get children involved in the cooking and searching for recipes. Take them to the Farmers’ Market. Teach them about nutrition and why it’s important to eat well.
  9. Be persistant. Make your own set of guidelines that works for your family. Stick to them, but be flexible. Don’t beat yourself up if it’s a frozen pizza kind of night.
  10. Make dinnertime a pleasant time. Focus on each other’s company rather than the food. If you are eating and enjoying the food, they will catch on, eventually.