Making the Family Mealtime Stick, by Cara Day

Research shows regular family meals have many benefits for family members.

Criteria for family meal:

  • Seated at shared table
  • All or most family members present
  • No technology on during meal
  • Meals at least 3 or more times per week, with 5 – 7 meals being optimum for outcomes

Proven benefits:
• Feelings of closeness and comfort
• Ability to feel and show empathy
• Positive family attitudes
• Communication skills
• Family cohesion
• Lower depressive symptoms in teens
• More likely to have family mealtimes with their own families when grown
• 35% less likely to engage in disordered eating
• 24% more likely to eat healthier foods
• 12% less likely to be overweight

Families that hold the beliefs and values which cause them to prioritize family mealtimes have children who are happier, more socially adept, and less likely to suffer from depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders, as well as being more likely to hand down the tradition and habit of family mealtimes to future generations.

Mealtime Magic Guidelines:

No devices on table or on person.
No television, even if muted, on during the meal.
Family Agreements apply: We speak kindly. We cooperate. We keep our hands, feet, and other objects to ourselves.
We practice our basic manners.

Ways to make the family mealtime an irresistible part of your family culture:

1. Do some reality-testing at 30,000 feet. If your initial reaction to having a family mealtime 4 – 5 times per week is, “But it’s so hard! We’re so busy,” it’s a good time to check in with yourself about the overall level of activity vs. inactivity in your family life. We create our lives. We can un-create them, too, in terms of the amount of activity and obligation we choose to take on for ourselves and our children. The research on the negative effects of freneticism and the positive outcomes around increased silence and downtime is clear. Self-coach, or seek professional coaching, to help you align your actions with the values you have around your overall activity level, and those of your family members, so you can provide yourself with the time required to plan and enjoy regular family mealtimes.

2. Plan meals ahead of time. This is not only good for the person who has to plan and prepare the meal. It is also good for children because they learn meals have to be planned and paid for. They will naturally look forward to the upcoming meals. After making a meal plan for the week or month, post it on the refrigerator or wall of the kitchen. Any calendar will do, or one you custom- make on your computer or by hand work especially well. Write the meals on the days you plan to have them, even if it ends up being adjusted. The plan creates your shopping list.
If you are mealtime-challenged and do not want to hire a chef, start with the mealtime, and make the quality of the food a second priority. You can increase your skills in the kitchen as time goes on. The most important thing is to have the meal. Stores now have fresh, ready-made food that is significantly better tasting and healthier than in times past. Start there if meal planning and preparation are the major stumbling block for you. Or, use ready-made food on the weeknights, and commit to one family-crooked meal each weekend.

3. Meal preparation can be a daily family activity. Most children are drawn to cooking and some have real talent in the kitchen. Children love to measure, stir, open things, get things out of the pantry, set oven temperatures and make things with their hands. Even if it takes a little longer, or is done a little differently, cooking with your children builds lasting memories. You also create kids who know how things are made and appreciate that process. Let your younger child sit on the counter next to you and talk about cutting, mincing, sauteing, stirring, boiling, searing, etc. They will love all the words, the measuring, and of course, the tasting, as you cook. When they become teenagers, they will have a basic command of the kitchen and can prepare meals for themselves—and you!

4. Setting the table is an important part of sharing a meal. Children can make simple place cards to be put at each person’s seat. Simply folding a small rectangular piece of paper in half and writing each person’s name is good enough. It can become more involved by adding decorative scissors, stickers and special pens. Place cards only take a few minutes to make and kids love to do it. It also occupies one or more children during the preparation time. Simple flowers from outside (or bought) can be put in small vases (or a juice glass) and put on the table. Lighting a candle, or two or three, for the middle of the table says, “This is special.” It is special. It is your time to be with the people you call your own. It’s the subtleties of making the mundane special that bind your children to your family, and creates the specialness that is “home.” A key part of your family fraternity.

5. Manners 101. Families who skip the family mealtime also miss out on one of the most important times for teaching basic manners and self-regulation skills. Mastery of basic manners is critical because using basic manners requires significant self-regulation. Self-regulation is the key to delayed gratification and strong self-confidence. Children need large doses of manners instruction at every age. This includes learning to sit up straight, to keep one hand in the lap, to speak when no one else is speaking, to use the Multiplier and Divider Rules, to make eye contact with the speaker, to chew with your mouth closed, to offer the last of something before taking it, to kindly ask for things to be passed–and the list goes on.

These are the manners that give children a social confidence. You want your child to get invitations in life. When your child is little, you create the playdates. But when a child is older, their manners and social skills determine whether they get invitations, and more importantly, whether they receive repeat invitations. You also want your child to know, eventually, how to interact when on a date, or other special social occasions. Moreover, you want them to have self-respect, which comes from knowing and displaying basic manners, both at the dinner table and when out in the world.

6. Mealtime conversations will grow as children grow in age. Asking a question of the entire family, and giving everyone a chance to answer it, can be a great way to lengthen and enrich mealtime. It gives a focus to the conversation as well as providing an opportunity for each person to learn something new about the other members of the family.
Another key and the often overlooked element of mealtime conversation is how it helps children see that adults are people, too, with unique concerns and feelings. There’s a great list of questions you can use that follows. For a few years, we used this list by printing it and putting it in a drawer that was near our table. More often than not someone would say, “Get the list!” Now, everyone’s pretty good at coming up with interesting questions off the cuff.

7. Share best and worst. Another dinnertime tradition that is easy to establish and maintain is for each person to share the best part of their day and the worst part of the day. Children love this and will say, “It’s time for best and worst,” or whatever you decide to call it.

They look forward to their time to share and also learn to listen when others are speaking. You get to learn about what matters to the people in your family. Things will come out that you would have had no other chance to find out that at that meal.

Sometimes the worst part of a person’s day was pretty upsetting. Other times, it helps you realize just how lucky you are when the worst part is kind of silly, or you can’t really think of anything. This is the most rewarding part of the family dinner–learning about each other and sharing. Parents can teach lessons, help children deal with difficult situations and provide a safe forum for sharing concerns or upsets by doing “best and worst.” Children relish their time to speak and eventually learn to respond appropriately to their family members by listening to understand and asking follow-up questions about what is shared by others.

Children also learn that parents have ups and downs in their days, too. They become less self- centered when they hear the thoughts and concerns of others and learn how to respond to them. When done day after day, year after year, you create children who will be welcomed at anyone’s table. You also create children who value dinnertime and who, in time, might recreate this special time with their own children.

8. Under the plate surprises. A couple of times per year, it’s fun to put something fun on everyone’s dinner plate on the sly. Near the end of the meal, you can let them know there’s something there, or come up with some clever way to have someone lift their plate for no apparent reason so it can be discovered.

You can put a question for everyone to answer, a compliment about each person, a “fortune” like those from a fortune cookie, or an announcement of some kind, like, “We’re having a baby” with a sonogram picture, or “We’re going on vacation!” with a picture of your destination.

Once when my kids were handed menus at a restaurant, concert tickets for a show that night fell out as they opened them. Creating simple surprises shows planning and thought. These resonate in a powerful way that your children will always remember.

9. Give the Family Trophy. The family trophy is an easy, powerful dinnertime tradition. Little children and teenagers alike love this tradition. Use a trophy from someone’s old collection, a past soccer season, a thrift store, or get one from eBay. If you want, make a new nameplate for the trophy by writing the names of each family on a piece of heavy paper and gluing it over the old plate, or have a special one custom made.
Begin the tradition by choosing one person who wins the trophy for that day. We usually give the trophy just as everyone is finished eating. The trophy can be given for any reason, large or small. The recipient might have won a major award, achieved a certain grade, accomplished a goal, was a helpful part of the family, said or did something nice, or used courage in some way.

Say who gets the trophy that night and why. Place it in front of that person’s plate and everyone can clap. The next night, the person who won it the night before (or at the most recent family dinner) gets to give the trophy to someone else. This fosters sibling love when they give it to one another and the reasons you hear will amaze and delight you. Doing this after “Best and Worst,” toward the end of dinner, create yet another thing to look forward to. And everyone loves to be a winner–-especially in the eyes of their family.

Our “family trophy” has taken on a life of its own over the past fifteen years. The recipient gives an acceptance speech that mirrors the academy award speeches given by actors. It’s canned now, we all say the same thing. The winner says “hi” to mom with an over-the-top wave, asks people to send Nikes to the sherpas in Tibet, thanks a long list of people, and then takes the trophy and “runs” with it outside (yes, the winner has to run the trophy outside), holding it high up in the air, while loudly yelling, “I won, I won!” It’s very, very silly, and super, uber fun. Who knows what the neighbors think. All I know for sure is that my children will never forget that we have a family trophy at dinner.

Mealtime Questions

What was the best part of your day? The worst? If you had a factory that could make anything, what would you make, and why? If you were down, sad, or bummed out, what are some things you’d want someone to do to help you feel better? When do you feel most alive? Tell a wish you have for yourself, your family, or the world. If you had to lose one of the five senses, which one would you give up and why? Describe your perfect day. Who? What? Where? How? What will people say at your funeral? When you’re down, sad, or bummed out, who do you go to make everything ok? Why? Name someone who you cherish highly. Does this person know how much they mean to you? When was the last time you told them? How did you tell them or show them? What are two things in your life you get to do? Two things you have to do? What are five words to describe you at your best? At your worst? What can you do when someone is annoying you? What are you doing right now in your life that is just for the purpose of having fun? What is your signature skill? What gift do you have that you express in a unique way, that can serve both yourself and the greater good? If you could go to sleep and wake up the next morning and have one thing be different, what would it be and why? What makes you laugh? What makes you cry? What is the best thing your dad does or did for you? What is the best thing your mom does or did for you? What person who is no longer alive would you like to meet? What would you say or ask? What do you wonder about the most? What is your favorite color, sport, clothing item, place to visit…