How important is it really for a family to eat dinner together? An what do other families do at dinnertime?
Recently I was asked to participate in The Blog for Family Dinner Project. I wondered what I, a parent educator who focuses on discipline, could contribute that would honor their tagline “…people who care about food, family, health and the environment and believe that family dinner is a powerful force for good.”
Then it dawned on me. Our family dinner table was a great source for many things. Sure, we ate at the table and talked at the table, but we also used our family dinner table to get to know our children, and ourselves, in a deeper way. So when I read Circle of Moms member Leslie L.’s question (the one at the start of this article), I knew that my answer might be unique.
Making Mealtime Fun…and Educational
Food, as you well know, isn’t just about eating. It’s about socializing, nurturing, soothing and communicating. Most families have unconscious rituals around food. Those rituals are expressed through the way the family behaves at the table each night.
The rituals can be fun, or they can be filled with constant conversation and corrections about what to do, what not to do, what to eat and what not to eat.
When my kids were little I decided that I wanted eating to be fun at our house.
You see, one of my kids was a very picky eater, and the other one ate everything. So our family dinners could have gone in one of several different directions.
I allowed my picky eater to eat as much of the family dinner as he wanted, and if he really hated it, he was allowed to make an organic PB & J sandwich as long as he ate carrots and had vitamins each day. There really was no discussion about it.
When the kids were old enough to know a bit about the world around them, we played with their love of geography, astronomy, history, and sports. Mr. Man (my husband) was great at this. He is a walking treasure trove of fun facts. We came to find out that so were our kids.
Each evening Mr. Man and the kids would lob fun facts around the table. This not only increased their knowledge of the world, it was fun. One child was a master geographer and wanted to be Indiana Jones. The other was a sports fanatic with a head for stats and wanted to be a professional athlete. Both kids still love those things, even as adults.
A Window Into Your Kids’ Lives
I was the observer at the table; it’s just my nature. My observations began to reveal something interesting. I began to see that our family table ritual changed depending on what was going on with the kids. No shock there, I know.
I was able to spot when they were growing. They would eat like there was no tomorrow. Their banter was loud and rambunctious, too. I was also able to spot when they were entering a new developmental phase; they were tired, picky about food, and sharp with their responses.
My observations proved exceedingly valuable as they got older. If we had a particularly tough day, I’d pay close attention to how they were acting at the dinner table. Were they engaged or distant? Their behavior became my red flag. Since my kids were usually so engaged at dinner, if they were distant, I knew there were still some unresolved feelings hanging around. I knew there was more work to do.
A Chance to Teach Manners
The family table also helped us when girls entered the picture. That’s when I created Sunday Manner Meals. Each Sunday I’d serve a messy or difficult meal to eat. That gave me the chance to instruct them on manners and show them how to eat things like spaghetti, politely. I told them that no father would ever let their daughter go out with someone who ate like a caveman!
Many experts say that having a family dinner is how you keep your kids plugged into your family. I agree. I also believe family dinners are a great way to stay plugged into your kids so you can help them with what’s going on in their world.
So you can stay connected when dealing with food issues, read How to End Power Struggles Over Food and Sleep.
Sharon Silver is the author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding and The Authentic Parent Series. Go to proactiveparenting.net to download two free chapters from her book and learn about other Proactive Parenting programs. Find Sharon on Twitter and Facebook.