Make Dinner Work for Your Family

Laura Markham's picture

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You know having dinner together as often as possible is the single best way to stay connected to your kids, right? Kids who regularly eat dinner with their families do better in school, are happier, and are less likely to get into any kind of trouble you can name. But you're so busy. You're already tired when weeknights start, and they go by in a flash. What can you do?

  1. Take ten beforehand to regenerate yourself. If you walk in the door from work exhausted and have to rush to get dinner on the table, you won't have any internal resources left by the time you sit down. Try putting out healthy snacks (carrots and hummus or healthy dip, cheese and healthy crackers) as the "first course" while you take ten minutes to wind down with a cup of tea or a glass of wine. After that, you'll be more relaxed while you get dinner on the table and sit down with those people you adore.

  2. Consciously cultivate sacred space. There's nothing magical about exhausted parents, cranky kids, and take-out food. But with minimal effort, we can create a daily, short but restorative, celebration of family, which offers refuge from the trials and tribulations of ordinary life. Some families do this by lighting candles, which seems to set the time apart and make it special. Some say a short blessing, which may or may not be religious in nature, but reconnects us with our gratitude for simply being alive and together.

    The most important component, though, is the attitude of celebration and appreciation. Parents will need to set the tone by overlooking trivial issues like table manners and whose turn it is to (fill in the blank), and focusing instead on what really matters. Which isn't, by the way, the food. (Table manners? I promise you they'll pick them up.)

  3. The food is not the point. I'm considered a health food nut by my family, and not a day goes by without my urging more vegetables on them. But I try to remember that the point of sitting down to dinner is to connect with each other, not what we eat. I never knock myself out with an elaborate weeknight meal when it's just our family eating. There are plenty of easy, healthy, kid-pleasing options out there, and my advice would be to eat simple, and save your energy for making the dinner table pleasant, rather than pulling together a meal that leaves you even more exhausted at the end of a long day.

    How simple? Your call, and my admiration to the chefs out there, but I rely heavily on spaghetti with sauce from a jar and salad from a bag (ok, cut up some red pepper and cucumbers if you must), organic chili from a box with added canned beans and frozen corn (accompanying corn muffins from a mix always makes this a crowd-pleaser), and frequently omelettes or scrambled eggs with raw carrots out of the bag. And of course, there's always pizza and take-out. The point is that decent nutrition (i.e., protein and veggies) does not require a long prep time, and stressing about the food sabotages what you really want, which is to be emotionally available to connect with your family.

  4. Turn off the TV and radio. Some families resist the temptation by situating the TV where it can't be seen from the table. Many impose a rule that no one answers phone calls, even if Mom or Dad gets an important work call, and turn off cell phones so they can't be heard. Protect this special time with your family from interruptions. The world will still be there in half an hour, even if you're the President.

  5. Establish fun rituals and routines. Some families take turns choosing appropriate background music or being in charge of dessert. Some rotate who says the blessing or chooses the discussion topic. In some families, Tuesday is pizza night and Friday is family game night or the Jewish Sabbath. It's the fact that you always do the same thing that reinforces the ritual aspect, and creates the feeling that this is home, and family, and regardless of the day's difficulties, we're lucky to be together, and life is good.

  6. Use blessings to create a sense of gratitude and connection. For some parents, saying grace is a time-honored tradition they wouldn't think of overlooking; for others it feels foreign and artificial. "I don't believe in God, so we don't say blessings at dinner!" I often hear. But blessings are not about God, necessarily. Blessings are about us: our gratitude that we are able to sit down to a meal when others are hungry, our appreciation of each other, our honoring the person who prepared the meal and the bounty of nature that produced it, our awareness that in this moment we have everything we truly need. Blessings don't have to be traditional prayers to "God." Blessings are a way of marking the meal as a sacred time together, a way of connecting us together in the deliciousness of shared appreciation. Blessings are a way of expressing our gratitude for another day alive, another meal with those we love. And gratitude has a way of helping us live more deeply. How to start using blessings if your family hasn't been used to them? You might try holding hands while each person says one thing they're thankful for.

  7. Protect the dinner table as a nurturing, happy, safe space. Defer unpleasant topics. Kids who begin to squabble can be asked to come up with ten things they really love about the sibling they're fighting with. Adults who start to complain about their day can be fined a dollar toward ice cream cones on Sunday evening. If you've tolerated a family culture where teasing is allowed -- which seems to be the norm among many families with teenage boys -- proclaim the dinner table a safe space exempt from comments that hurt another's feelings. (You might also want to re-examine the role of teasing in your household culture to make sure it's benign.) The key is cheerful, relaxed, and kind parental leadership so that everyone's contribution is valued and no one feels criticized.

  8. Make the discussion interesting for all, rather than just adults talking about their jobs or preschoolers cracking toilet jokes. Some families rule job talk off-limits, but I think there's much for kids to learn by hearing a bit about their parents' days. We usually start with a quick round of "So how was everyone's day?" which often leads us into a topic.

Dr. Laura Markham