Spilled Milk and Spaghetti on the Floor: In Support of Family Meals

When I was growing up, family meals worked like clockwork in our home. We knew that every night around 6 or 6:30 we would all sit down and eat together as a family. My parents would ask us how school was, we would, begrudgingly, give a half-hearted answer of “fine” or “boring”, someone would inevitably spill milk all over the table, my sister would start gagging out of nowhere because that was a thing she did for a while, etc.

They were messy and crazy, sometimes quiet, other times chaotic. Some nights we were happy to be there; other times we were not. But the important thing was not that each dinner ran smoothly without any issues whatsoever. The important thing was that we all showed up, every single night of my years at home, no matter how busy or stressed any of us were that night.

I will say that my upbringing was privileged, which made it easier for my parents to insure we sat down as a family every night. My dad was able to work a job that payed well enough that my mom didn’t have to work. (At least for money, I have never seen someone work harder that my mom, as I am sure all stay-at-home mothers or fathers could attest to.) As a result, she could meal plan, cook a healthy, well-balanced meal, and spend the time convincing all six of us to stop roaming the neighborhood and come sit at the table like civilized humans. I now realize that, although my parents worked hard to insure family mealtimes were a priority, it can be really hard for families where both parents have to work long hours. Seemingly impossible at times.

And working long hours isn’t the only barrier to family mealtimes. We are now busier than ever. We are essentially always on call with emails and texts from the boss after work hours, kids have an endless amount of scheduled events to attend, and the reality of having a single-income household is slim to none in our current economy. So many barriers.

BUT.

It is so, so important. I’d argue one of the most admirable goals you can set in regards to your family.

The research is continuously showing that regular family meals are correlated with a huge amount of benefits for all members of the family, including improved nutritional health, better family communication, higher school success, positive lifestyle choices, improved self-esteem, lower rates of teen pregnancy, and lower rates of depression. And the list goes on.

In this post, I want to propose that scheduled family dinners are possible in any stage of life, no matter what the current situation is. And that the key to success is to not expect perfection; to not try and make the family meal look like something straight out of The Brady Bunch, with all kids present and behaved with napkins on laps and glasses of milk that never spill.

The meal does not have to be a carefully crafted, organic, locally produced spread that looks like something out of a magazine. It can be Chinese take-out or a pizza delivery. Ideally, a variety of food groups would be present (as a future dietitian I can’t help but add that, haha) but the main thing is that it happens. To expect perfection at family mealtimes increases the pressure, which increases the stress, which increases the chance that you’ll just say screw it and distribute chicken nuggets in the car on the way home from soccer practice. Life is already stressful enough, to expect your family mealtimes to look like your neighbor’s or some pre-conceived idea of what they should look like is counterproductive to what you are trying to accomplish.

Saying that, I do believe some basic rules apply to family mealtimes that are necessary to put in place in order to maximize that time and to decrease the chance of distractions and “checking out”. It is important that you create your own rules or guidelines based on on your family’s personal situation, goals, and values but here are a few of my rules:

  • No screens. EVER. This includes phones, TV’s, laptops, etc. Silenced and put away. No exceptions. (Also, studies show that watching TV while eating is positively correlated with an increase in calorie consumption and poorer dietary quality.)
  • The parent decides what will be served, the child decides if and how much he or she will eat. Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility is a feeding philosophy that, I believe, is the key to avoiding feeding challenges and helps in creating a positive food environment.
  • The meals occur around the same time each night, schedule allowing. Consistency will increase the likelihood of creating a routine and setting the expectation.
  • The meals last at least 30 minutes. It’s not a mealtime if everyone just wolfs down the food and leaves immediately.
  • No negative comments about the food. How many times have you heard one child say they “hate green beans” and then, all of a sudden, everyone else does too?
  • At the end of the meal, all present help clean up. Encouraging a child to help out as much as possible is great, but can also be as simple as instructing them to take his or her plate to the sink. The important thing is fostering a sense of responsibility with the mealtime.

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Setting expectations and guidelines with your family mealtimes will increase the likelihood of them not becoming overwhelming for any one member of the family, or petering off because no one is having fun.

In our crazy, busy, stress-filled lives, eating dinner together can be one of the only occasions during the day we can connect with the members of our family. It is crucial that we honor that time by making the meals a priority, which as a result will enable us to honor each other. Sitting down for dinner as a family each night will insure that we pay attention to and strengthen bonds with the most important people in our lives, which will spread into other important areas of our lives such as school, work, friends, personal growth and our physical health. 30 minutes a day seems well worth it to me.

Finally, remembering to not expect perfection and to see the humanity and beauty in the crazy moments of spilled milk, spaghetti on the floor, or your kids feeding the carrots to the dog under that table will make the meals a time to be treasured. My greatest memories of childhood center around our kitchen table, and I cannot tell you how grateful I am for that.

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