Managing Mealtime Mania
“There’s nothin’ good to eat here.”
“Use your fork, not your fingers.”
“He got more cookies than I did.”
“Not McDonald’s AGAIN!”
“This looks like dog food!”
“I’m too worn out to cook; have cereal.”
Smile if any of these lines sound familiar! For some of us, they are far too familiar. We are among the many parents who want to wave the white flag when it comes to mealtimes. My personal favorite was born following a family meal when my son pulled a milk container from the refrigerator and asked me, “What’s the exasperation date on this?”
Managing mealtime mania. It can feel exasperating – especially when time and energy have been expended to bring food and family together. Conversely, exasperation may result from the inability to come together at all as a family for meals. Conflicts in scheduling or demands from outside the home often keep us apart during times we’d rather be together. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize how fragmented our society and families have become.
Despite the scheduling obstacles and changes in lifestyles, family and parenting researchers continue to emphasize the value of family table time. It is described by Delores Curran as “the gathering place for the clan, the one time each day that parents and children are assured of uninterrupted time with one another.” In a research study, family professionals ranked family table time as 13th out of 56 traits that healthy families exhibit.
Actually, the busier you are, the more valuable mealtime is for your child. When families eat meals together, healthy attitudes toward family life are developed. After all, “breaking bread together” is one of the oldest and most fundamentally unifying of human experiences. The dinner hour is a wonderful opportunity to encourage the kind of communication that draws kids out, deepens relationships, makes a difference in their moral development and increases their sense of connection to their families.
These perspectives emphasize the gathering and the opportunity for family members to connect through conversation. The food and a table are means to that end. The meal need not be home cooked and served on a fancy tablecloth with candles and classical music to smiling kids wearing fresh, clean clothing.
Parents and experts in the field of parenting alike stress making mealtime a family priority. Dinner business meetings are turned down. Phone calls are not answered. Sports activities that require participation through early evening hours are discouraged. These families expect and place a high value on shared mealtime. Then they protect this time from outside pressures. This does not mean family members are not occasionally excused or that the mealtime cannot shift to accommodate changes. Flexibility and support for one another is also one of the traits of a healthy family!
A second common theme related to mealtime is the TV. It seems unanimous. TURN IT OFF! Communication shuts off when the TV is turned on. Mealtime is reduced to feeding time. The family is robbed of perhaps the only time available to connect. Convinced of mealtime’s importance, let’s reconsider the chaos.
Some suggested tips to manage the mania include:
Set ground rules. Examples: One person speaks at a time. No interrupting. Each person’s plate must have two items of food on it before anyone can begin eating. The answering machine takes all calls. No cell phones at the table. Assess what your family needs as table-time boundaries.
Establish rituals. Many families say grace before eating, perhaps while holding hands. Give each person at the table a compliment. Select a person to choose a “topic of the meal” such as a current event or a value such as honesty. Traditions add an element of unity and relationship building.
Talk about the day’s events. But don’t interrogate one another! One trick to get kids (especially teens) to talk about themselves is to talk about yourself and your day. This technique tends to yield greater participation than asking questions which usually elicit a one word answer.
Ask open-ended questions. When you do ask questions, try to go beyond those that can be answered “yes” or ”no” or with one word. Prepare creative ways to address the old, “How was your day?” I am inserting the following questions into our family meals:
- What was something you learned today?
- What’s something you did today that you never did before?
Save tension-producing topics for after the meal. This holds true for discussions that may lead to sibling rivalry or put downs when all are together.
This is just a sample of ideas. You might even make “managing mealtime mania” a mealtime topic! Despite our best efforts, there will continue to be moments of exasperation. But the messages we send to our children about the importance of family togetherness at mealtimes will feed far more than their empty stomachs for far longer than the next, “I’m hungry!”
Pam Nicholson, MSW, is a certified parenting educator. This article is reprinted with permission from The Center for Parenting Education.