Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Family Mealtime Tips by Jocelyn

I'm pretty sure that if you're reading this post, I don't have to convince you of the benefits of holding frequent family meals together.
But here's a little nudge, if you're looking for one. 
"New research shows that the more frequent these (family) dinners, the better the adolescents fare emotionally, says new research published this week in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
"The effect doesn't plateau after three or four dinners a week," says co-author Frank Elgar, an associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montréal. "The more dinners a week the better."
With each additional dinner, researchers found fewer emotional and behavioral problems, greater emotional well-being, more trusting and helpful behaviors toward others and higher life satisfaction, regardless of gender, age or family economics." (USA Today 2013)
So whether you're eating steak or raman noodle, the results are the same: eating dinner together every day makes a world of difference in your family relationships, in how your children relate towards others and ultimately how happy you will be individually and collectively.
I think that most of us know deep down that this is true, but with young children or busy family schedules, sitting down for family meals can be rocky at best.

I am blessed to come from a long line of excellent cooks, however, cooking is not exactly my favorite sport, so I tend to procrastinate making dinner, which leads to stress in the afternoons and hastily-prepared meals.  I was thinking about how silly this scenario was recently (since I do stay home and I do have the time!), and decided that if I really do believe that family mealtime is the most important time of the day outside of family scripture study, then I need to spend more time making family mealtime a priority.

But where to start?  I applied my tried and true mantra:  "You always have time for the things you put first," which lead to a few changes that have made a world of difference in our stress-levels and improved the enjoyability of eating with an almost 2, 5, 7, and 8 year-old.  Some of these traditions are new to our family and some we've done ever since I was a kid.
See if any of these family mealtime traditions might be the answer to any of your sticky mealtime situations, and if you have any family nuggets of mealtime wisdom that you'd like to share, feel free to serve them up in a comment below!

1.  Plan ALL of your meals, even snacks. - My Mom was so smart, she planned 30 days of meals in advance and went grocery shopping once a month.  I'm not that advanced...yet.  I plan for the week.  But I also plan for after school snacks, because that too is an important time of day for our family.  I like this free menu planning worksheet which you can print off here.  It helps me keep track of even the snacks that our family eats.
2. Gather ingredients in advance. - How many times have you walked into the pantry or opened the cupboard--full of food--and had nothing you could actually use to make a (tasty) meal?  Me?  Many times.  So this summer I started a new system.  I have seven baskets on a shelf in my pantry. I pick seven recipes and gather the dry ingredients for each meal in each basket.  Then I see what I'm missing and do my grocery shopping. This method has made cooking much more fun for me, because I can easily look in my pantry and know immediately if I have a meal to make ready to go.

3.  Set the table for dinner first thing in the morning. - This is something that I remember my Grandmother always doing.  She was even known to set the table for breakfast the night before!  She had her reasons for doing this, but for me, nagging my children to set the table after school was zapping my energy.  I also found when they did it, they weren't really trying to set it nicely.  I realized that I needed to take the time to set the table nicely myself for a while in order to teach my children how the table should be assembled.  Eventually, they will take it over again, but for now, the table is all ready to go for dinner before I leave for the day, making it very nice to come home to.

4. Set a complete table.: At every place setting there should be a plate, cup, fork, knife, spoon, and napkin.  That's how I was raised, although for a while here in my home we were just setting forks, but I put my foot down! ;)  Setting all of the basic utensils is the only way children will learn proper mealtime etiquette.  Even little kids can and should learn to use different utensils.  My son recently questioned me on this, citing the fact that we usually "don't use all of the utensils."  I told him that some day he's going to be sitting at a fancy dinner for a job interview and he's going to be the only one who knows what to do with his utensils and it could get him the job...and when that day comes, he'll thank me!  And besides that, setting the table properly adds to the feeling that what we are doing around the table is special to all of us and should be reverenced.  (See how to set a basic table here.)
5. Start preparing dinner early. - There are a million distractions and important tasks that were causing me to delay starting my dinner prep, so now (in addition to setting the table early) I start dinner either in the morning or at lunch time.  I feel less stress knowing dinner is well-underway (ingredients gathered, meat defrosted, vegetables prepped, or everything in a crock pot!) before I leave the house to run errands.  Whatever I can do ahead of time, I do.  This also frees me up for other things, including sitting and talking with my children when they come home from school.

6. Make everyone feel like an honored guest at the table by making name tags or assigning seats.  Our children used to argue about who would "get to sit next to Mommy" so much that we started pulling names out of a bowl before every meal to see where everyone would sit!  It did stop the fighting, and eventually everyone was so excited to pull names that it became a highlight of dinnertime!  There are a lot of place setting name cards online that you can print and personalize for free.
7. No TV, No Phones. - I remember how shocked we all were the first time the phone rang and Dad didn't answer it!!! (At least the first time that we noticed!)  This was circa 1990 probably.  There were no phone calls answered during dinner, and we never ate in front of the television.  It taught a great lesson to all of us that dinner with the family was more important than anything...and would not be interrupted or time-shared with other distractions.  The same goes today.  Don't have the TV on.  Don't bring cell phones to the table (or under it!)  Be present for this important event!

My siblings and me!  Looking like we're up to no good around the table!!
8.  Start with family prayer. - Growing up and now, it is a tradition to hold hands as a family around the dinner table during family prayer.  As a kid, I remember there were times that we didn't want to hold hands with the person next to us, because inevitably someone had just washed their hands and they were still wet, and it was creepy to hold someone's wet hand, or someone's dirty hand...however, it was also fun. Someone usually started squeezing hands, and the squeeze got passed around, and that was a loving thing.  And then if you were mad at someone, you'd squeeze super hard and try to inflict pain while Mom and Dad's eyes were closed thinking you'd get away with something!  But as years pass, you come to love the ritual of holding hands at this one special prayer of the day.  You bow your heads together as one person offers a prayer, and then you all say "Amen" and it's just one more thing that brings peace into a family.  If you are unsure how to start saying "grace" before a meal, have no fear.  You really can't go wrong.  We generally start by holding hands (or folding one's arms), bowing heads, and closing our eyes.  We address God by saying, "Dear Heavenly Father."  We thank Him for the food we are about to eat and other blessings and ask for any needs there might be in the family.  Then we end with, "In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen," with all family members saying Amen together.  Mom, Dad, and kids all should take turns offering the prayer at dinnertime for the rest of the family.

8.  Pass the food around. Our family serves up the dinner "family style" meaning all of the dishes are in the center of the table and are passed around so everyone can dish up their own servings.  This, as my grandma and mom would say, should be passed as the "cards are dealt" or "line of dance"...which means the dishes are passed around clock-wise.  This is a good opportunity for children to serve one another and practice good manners, such as taking only what you can eat, trying a little bit of everything, saving food for the rest of the family, and, of course, saying "please pass the..." and "Please and Thank you."

9. Everyone eats. No complaining. - At our house growing up, you ate the food mom made.  And you certainly never complained.  Once I remember my Mom asking if her famous pull-apart rolls tasted ok.  We took that moment to confess that she had added too much salt.  What she really needed to hear (and what every cook needs to hear) was that it was wonderful and that we appreciated her hard work (day after day) in the kitchen.  In our house this is still the rule.  You eat what you're given.  You appreciate the work of others.  You NEVER CRITICIZE the food...that's just rude!  Herein lies another wonderful opportunity for you to teach and instruct your children.  When children are young, I've found it's best to give them the tiniest of bite-sized portions at first and let them ask for more.  This keeps them from becoming overwhelmed/disinterested by what's on their plate.  Which reminds me of my Dad: He always filled our cups just about two inches full and would famously say, "When you finish that, you can have more!" like it was a prize to be worked toward!

10. Messes Happen. Embrace them. - I remember the dinner time when many family members  were gathered for a birthday party.  Everyone was squeezed around our little table.  It was too cozy to be an inconvenience, but it was easy to knock something over with all those elbows and arms swinging around.  Well, just before dinner started, I knocked my water over, and got an earful from Mom.  I was so sad.  Then before I knew it, Grandma, who was sitting directly across from me, also knocked over her glass of water.  Suddenly, I felt vindicated.  And I always suspected she did it on purpose.  Messes happen.  Make allowances for them.
11. The "Two Fork" Rule. - There were plenty of times that we absolutely did not want to eat the meal that was before us.  Sometimes, we sat at the table until it was consumed or had otherwise disintegrated off of our plate.  But at some point we must've figured out that if dessert was involved, we were more motivated to eat.  So our Mom would say, "Eat your dinner," and we soon started to follow that question up with, "Is there dessert?"  Apparently, my Mom got so irritated with this question, which probably came at all points of the meal, that she started setting a second fork.  A second smaller fork set inside (to the right) of the dinner fork was the silent indication that there WAS a second course coming, and that course involved dessert.  That solved that problem.  My mom rarely had to hear "Is there dessert?" again!  And that's still the question at our house..."should I set a second fork??"  Soon, because we all inhaled dessert so quickly, we had to institute another rule...and that was, no one starts eating their dessert until the person who made it--the hostess--has taken her first bite.  I'd imagine we were the most well-behave children during the two minutes it took Mom to serve up dessert.
12.  "Who had the best day?" - I always remember my Dad asking us, "So, who had the best day?"  It was an odd question, given that he probably didn't always have the best day but it was so like my Dad to set a positive tone for dinnertime conversation.  And soon, we all were eager to think of some reason why our day was "the best day".  There really wasn't any complaining at the table, because of the way my Dad phrased this question.

13. Rose, Thorn, or Pickle - I found that it was often hard to get my kids to talk about their school day, especially my son.  Other kids talked too much and monopolized the conversation at dinner.  So we started sharing a "rose" and a "thorn"...something good and maybe not so pleasant.  Then to mix things up, I asked them to also share a "pickle"...which is something that makes you make a pickle face!  (Insert my pickle face here!)  A "pickle" can be something that was a quandary or dilemma where you weren't sure what to do, something funny or silly or strange that happened during the day.  Everyone enjoys making their best pickle face and giggling while they share their pickle story.

14.  Always compliment the cook. - This one I touched on previously, but it bears repeating.  Whether Mom (or Dad) makes scrambled eggs and toast or filet mignon, the Cook should be congratulated for making such a great meal.  And the best compliment is doing the dishes afterward!  (My Dad did dishes a lot, and taught us that the job wasn't done until you got the "orts" out of the sink!)  

The picture above is of my Grandma and my Mom in the kitchen in the home I grew up in.  The entire kitchen (except the table area) is pictured here.  It was small but mighty, and oh, the amazing meals my Mom churned out day in and day out. She was so amazing in so many ways, and proof that you don't need fancy to be an incredible homemaker!!!  Thank you, Mom! 
15. Telling family stories - Our kids started playing the "skinny dog" a while back, where they seemed to wolf down their food and immediately want to "run away" and leave the table.  This was not acceptable to me.  So, to entice the children to stay a little longer at the table and converse, we started telling juicy family stories from the past to keep their interest.  Stories like the time Grandpa shot his sister in the head with an arrow and the time my siblings and I got into a big mud fight which we managed to conceal from our parents for 15 years are among some of their favorite and oft-repeated tales that keep our children at the table begging for more!  

16.  Talking all at once. - When I was a young teen, I remember that everyone at our dinner table liked to talk at once. There was usually five different conversations going at once.  It was so loud!  We didn't really have a "quiet" kid in our family, so it worked out.  I don't remember my parents ever telling us to stop, but I know some families this might not work well.  In our family, because the kids are still young, we do try to encourage quieter children to share and give them a floor when we see they're getting the short end of the conversation stick.
17.  Addressing family issues. - I've read somewhere that you shouldn't use dinnertime as a time to address family "problems" or issues.  Would hate for anyone to lose their appetite!  But in my family growing up and even now, tackling issues or making announcements are not off the table at dinner.  I can remember my parents addressing sticky issues at dinner, and I know my kids are listening best when their mouths are full of food and so we definitely use this time to talk about serious things if it's needed. 

18. Excuse me and thank you. - This is a tradition that was passed down from my Dad's side of the family. Growing up, when everyone was done eating, before clearing our plate, we always said, "Excuse me and thank you."  This was code word for, I'm finished eating, maybe I be excused, and thanks for another great meal."  Some people prefer children to ask, "May I be excused?"  You might want to come up with your own system that works for you.

Christmas Day Dinner - far away and long ago!
19. Everyone helps clear the table. - In our house growing up, we took turns "doing the dishes."  We had a small kitchen (as mentioned above).  My parents usually assigned one of us to wash and one of us to dry the dishes.  I think they did this to help us get along with one another.  Time spent working together in a small space did a lot for our relationships.  My husband's family required that at every meal participants clear their own dishes "plus 1"...or "plus 2" depending on the meal.  So clear your own stuff, plus 1 or 2 more items to help out.  I have always been impressed with how everyone in his family hops up to do the dishes together and stay until it's all done!  
20. "I always get the hardest days." - This is in here strictly as a tribute to my sister who was known to say about her job doing dishes "I always get the hardest days."  My husband was known for getting out of doing dishes by complaining that his "feet itched."  These are the family-specific phrases that will result from making family mealtimes a tradition.  It can be a real pain sometimes and a lot of work in the present, but as the years pass, these painful moments will become treasured.

21. Making special meals. - Another "treasure" from my Mom was, "You'll eat it, or you'll wear it."  She meant business.  Although, we were expected to eat what was before us, my Mom often asked us to help plan or make meals with her.  And we always could request our favorite meal on our birthday. I have always involved my children in meal prep and cooking with me, but in the last year or so we starting doing "cooking school" in which I use a funny accent to the entertainment of my children.  Little do they know I am stalling as I reread directions.  I am the one being schooled.  They are being entertained.  And meanwhile dinner is getting cooked!  For a while at dinner in my home growing up there was the "red plate" tradition, where if you had a special day or were celebrating a special accomplishment, your meal was served on the "red plate."

22. Eating out for special days. - Our family very, very rarely ate out.  This was mainly for budgetary reasons, because my mom was an excellent cook, and because eating out was just not done as much back then.  The one day a year that I remember eating out was the first day of school.  The back to school dinner was such a treat and often took us to "Bob's Big Boy's!"

23. Eat by Example - As a side note, there are health reasons for eating together.  Whenever people tell me that they have picky eaters or their children won't eat __________, I always check to see if the family eats dinner together regularly.  The reason for this is because children will eat what they see you eating.  IF children don't sit and eat with you regularly or if you serve them a separate meal from the one you're eating (say fries and chicken nuggets), they will not eat what you want them to eat.  On the other hand, if children witness you eating healthy, freshly prepared meals with veggies and a swig of milk, this is what they will desire for themselves.  It's that simple.  
I never imagined that this list would be so long when I set out to write this post, but here you have it.  Hopefully something that I have shared resonates with you or helps improve your family mealtimes, and your efforts to nurture your family.  You don't have to do it all at once.  You don't even have to do it all.  

If you aren't having meals together regularly right now, just start out simply.  Even if you can only squeeze in a snack together, do it!  You will be starting a tradition that is healthy in so many ways and builds memories to last a lifetime!

Thanks for reading and be sure to check out Cranial Hiccups today for more pearls of family wisdom!


  1. oooh, I really liked this post, Jocelyn. For some reason, #20 tugged at my heart strings. . .those funny little quirky things that make for an inside joke really make a family tight. Well done :).

  2. Yesiree...that kitchen was tiny. How in the world did my mom and I fit in there, side by side? But my Bosch still got its own special spot...and was used so often. Thanks, Jocelyn...lovely post. Covered about everything.

    1. I almost included a close-up of the Bosch...power tool indeed! You're awesome, Mama!

  3. Thanks for sharing! Wonderful tips and reminders; makes me appreciate the conscious effort my parents put into our dinner traditions :^)

    1. Everything is more meaningful in retrospect! Thank goodness for good parents who always try!

  4. wow, how informataive-you have a little book here. I'm still fixing 3 meals a day for my hubby and me as we are! he does the dishes...

  5. Many of my best memories come from family dinners together.


  6. Love it!! But how do you get your 2 year old to leave the table set nicely all day. If I set my in the morning I would be re-doing it all day due to little hands taking it all away. :)

    1. That's true. She has moved stuff once or twice, but we are gone a lot during the day or away from the table. Like with everything, I just teach her to leave it alone. Sometimes she wants to eat lunch at her spot, but I have a smaller kid table she usually eats lunch at!