Let’s face it, our lives are so busy sometimes just getting dinner onto the table can be considered a win, other times you spend extra time preparing and cooking a delicious family meal, and then….....it doesn’t quite go to plan.
The teenager won’t come out of their room, the toddler won’t even look at the meal you made, someone is running late for dinner, one-word answers to every question you ask and all you really want is to connect, laugh and share with your family for 20 minutes! ……Sound familiar?
If any of the above feels familiar, or perhaps you want to introduce family dinners as part of your mealtime routine, read my 10 practical tips for improving family dinners.
1. PLAN FOR SUCCESS
Take a look at your calendar, are all the important things listed for you to remember?
My advice is to list your family dinner time on your calendar too, making it visible to everyone who needs to attend.
Be realistic, the mealtime might change based on family activities and commitments and there might be a night or two where you don’t have family dinner, but in my experience, diarising family dinners helps to show everyone that sitting down to eat meals together is important, after all it’s in the diary!
2. CREATE A POSITIVE ENVIRONMENT
Ensuring that your family mealtimes are a positive experience seems obvious, but in the rush of our daily lives and limited other times to connect, they can sometimes become the “boardroom” for all family matters.
Whilst the regularity and familiarity of family dinners can be a comfort in themselves, creating the right environment for a successful family dinner also requires a safe space, free from criticism and judgement. This can be challenging when quality family time is limited, which is why we tend to use the opportunity to discuss everything. Try to leave “the business” including hot topics to a more appropriate time, which includes only those who need to be involved not the entire table.
Family dinner time, in its simplest form, should be a place of solace for your entire family, where your body is fuelled by the food on the table and your soul nourished by your cheer squad seated around it.
3. REMOVE DISTRACTIONS
If you're looking to really connect with your family over dinner you need to remove all distractions that will limit this from happening.
I find the biggest culprit for this is the smart phone and watche. Unless you are expecting an URGENT call or message (think baby being born, or medical emergency), don’t bring them anywhere near the table.
By not bringing your phone, it signifies that 100% of your focus and attention are on those around your table.
Oh! And be the example you want to see, this matters too, especially with teens.
4. FUNCTIONAL LANGUAGE ISN’T A CONVERSATION
Dinner time conversation can be consumed by “functional conversation”. What is functional conversation?
- “Put your legs down at the table”
- “Can you please pass me the pepper”
- “Eat with your mouth closed please”
- “Eat half of your dinner and then you can be done!”
Whilst technically this is talking to each other, it isn’t a conversation and can at times consume the entire meal.
I realise this is easier said than done, especially for those that have fussy eaters, but try not to focus on the food or table manners. In fact, you just might find that when you move the focus away from functional language and focus on engaging conversation it helps to provide an atmosphere that is conducive to the goal you are trying to achieve (think safe and comforting environment).
Oh! This is another opportunity to “be what you want to see”! Children are very good at mirroring our behaviours, so, display your best table manners and eat the same meal as your children together “family style” from the table, is more powerful that you might realise.
5. BE ENGAGED (& HAVE FUN TOO!)
Being present and engaged is important. It is one thing to be seated at the table, it is a totally different feeling when someone is actively engaged in the conversation.
In order to show that family dinners are a priority for you focusing on developing relevant and engaging conversations with your children is important.
Try to avoid questions like:
- “How was your day?” Too easily answered with a “yes” or “no” response especially for teens.
- “What did you do at school today?” Too broad and overwhelming to pin point, especially for younger children.
- “Did you eat all of your lunch?” Functional language wrapped up as a question, that’s not fun!
Try using open ended questions that are more specific, or provide follow up questions to gain more information and engagement such as:
- “What did you do at lunchtime today?”
- “Share a time where you laughed so hard that you snorted!”
- “Did you laugh at school today?”
- “Share what happened?”
By combining both questions and games, Around The Table Dinner Conversation Cards are the perfect mix of conversational fun, designed to support parents to make connecting over dinner easier. With packs of cards to suit children of all ages they will make mealtimes more enjoyable for everyone at your table.
See the range HERE.
6. DINNER AND A SHOW DOESN’T WORK
As soon as you try mixing television or other tech devices with family mealtime you lose the conversation and the real richness.
Whilst we all know that family dinners are important, its actually the conversation component that brings the real rewards. Research has proven that there are significant benefits for children associated to family mealtimes, however they are not apparent without engaging conversation. Read the list of benefits HERE.
If screens have slipped into your nightly routine (which is very easy to happen) it can be quite challenging to get back to the table, as screens are extremely stimulating, but it’s not impossible. My advice is:
- Start with one night per week of television free family dinners and build up the number of nights gradually. Sunday nights are always a great place to start.
- Make mealtimes as fun as possible, after all you are competing with television for the attention. Try playing The Name Game (a new game created by Around The Table to play over dinner for families with children aged 3+) See HERE for details.
- Try playing music over dinner, if you have a tween or teenager ask them to create a playlist (this brings tech to dinner without a screen).
- Combining music with a meal theme and dress up “just because” is a lot of fun too.
- If your children are older, invite their friends over for dinner, this is a great way to get them to the table and show interest in their friends too.
- My final point is to try eating in different locations, this can change the entire vibe and works very well if previously the dinner environment wasn’t as positive as you would have liked. Try eating outside, make BBQ night family dinner night or perhaps you link family dinners to picnics, removing the stigma or feeling of being “interrogated with questions”(especially with older teens) can help.
Oh! If your family does enjoy dinner in front of the television, try to make it a “treat” ie Takeaway only nights, so that you keep regular meals conversation rich.
7. FOOD ISN’T THE MAIN EVENT
This may sound contradictory but for me, family dinners are about more than just food.
The main event isn’t the food but it provides the time to connect as a family (reap all those benefits for your children) and most importantly a safe place to check in with your children. I call it the R U OK? Day that happens every day.
A great way to check if you are prioritising the time to connect (which I have done and it shocked me), is to time how long it takes you to prepare a meal and how long you spend sitting at the table eating it. Once I did this, I realised that I was focusing my limited time (especially mid-week) on the wrong thing.
If being time poor is one of the reasons you don’t have the family mealtimes you want, here are some practical tips to help:
- Meal Plan – I know there are lots of companies that do this, personally I use and recommend a local mum who runs Fresh Fast & Frugal you can find details HERE
- Meal Box Deliveries – There are loads of meal delivery companies from Hello Fresh to Dinner Ladies, I like the ethos of Dinner Sorted a Melbourne company that donates food to the less fortunate with every order. See details
- Batch Cook – Double batch cook everything you make and freeze half, this significantly reduces my mid-week cooking times and is a great cost saver.
- Get everyone involved in the cooking and meal preparation – Why not start the conversation while you are working together?
- Plan your “quick meals” for family nights - We all have a list of “go to” meals that are fast to make and popular.
- Pre-Prepared Meals - There are lots of options for this now from the local supermarket. They can be expensive, however cheaper than take-away and in most cases healthier too.
- Take-Away – This is the last option on my list (for many reasons) the main one being that take-away seems to break all the family rules and you might find dinner is faster but it isn’t eaten together around the table.
8. PICK YOUR TIMING
I don’t say this lightly, but if your energy or the energy levels of your children are not supportive of an engaging (and fun) family dinner, then don’t do it.
Having the right level of energy is just as important as having the right environment, especially if you are introducing sit down family dinners as a new routine or re-introducing them.
Tired kids (and parents) don’t make for engaging conversations. In these instances, I usually opt for an easy dinner (eggs on toast, toasties or even a smoothie is great), read a book to the kids (or they read) before bed to wind down.
Plan family dinner for another night, after all our goals is for everyone to enjoy the time together.
9. MODERN FAMILIES
Families come in many forms, for me, it’s a term I use for those that I love and care for.
With shift work and conflicting schedules, you may find that your family aren’t always “together for dinner”, if that is the case, work with who is available.
Don’t be misguided that it needs to look a certain way. I think if the recent pandemic has taught us anything is that it does take a village to raise a child, so invite the neighbours, friends and extended family to share in your mealtimes.
Likewise, if your village is you and your children, then don’t wait for the villagers to arrive to be able to connect over dinner.
This point is to say, that family dinners don’t need to looks a certain way, it’s more about how it feels.
10. IT DOESN’T NEED TO BE PERFECT
Perfection isn’t required for your family dinner to be perfect.
You don’t need an “instagrammable” meal, kids with perfect manners or even empty plates at the end of the night, all you need is full seats around your table and a willingness to share, laugh and listen together.