It is undeniable that family mealtimes can get the better of you and cause you to want to pull your hair out. But it doesn’t have to be that way, especially when you’re armed with these handy tips.
WORDS SAMANTHA TAN
Family meals aren’t just about the food. It is also a time where family members are able to spend time together to share about their day, tell one another about daily achievements, receive and offer encouragement and advice, and most of all, enjoy the company. Studies have shown that there are also huge benefits to children eating meals with their parents, such as consuming more fruits and vegetables and developing better vocabularies. Furthermore, girls are less likely to develop eating disorders, school-age children do better in school and teens are less likely to smoke, drink and do drugs. Thus, you roll up your sleeves and decide that family mealtimes are now a thing in your household. But things don’t always go as planned, do they?
With the under-five crowd, mealtimes are almost always guaranteed to be a messy, chaotic and tiresome affair, with kids whining, throwing tantrums and generally doing whatever makes them kids. It almost makes you want to quit doing family dinners but before giving up, try some of these strategies to make family mealtimes fun and enjoyable for everyone.
1. Plan Meals Together
One of the biggest obstacles to having peaceful mealtimes is when your kids reject the food that you have prepared and refuse to eat, causing meltdowns for both parent and child. Instead, try to involve the whole family in planning for the meals ahead of time. By allowing the kids to have a say in what is served for meals, they feel a sense of satisfaction that their needs and wants have been taken into consideration and are more willing to accept the food that you have prepared.
2. Involve the Kids in the Preparation
If you have the time, why not go a step further and involve the kids in meal preparation too. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated like cooking and chopping vegetables. Perhaps while you are cooking, allow your children to help around the kitchen by occasionally passing you utensils or ingredients. Get them to pull up a chair and see what you are doing with the food, this will help them to understand more about the cooking process and see what is actually in their food.
3. Set a Specific Time Range for Everyone to Eat Together
Having set mealtimes means that all family members would have to make an effort to clear their schedule and set aside time for weekly dinners.
To prevent any outside distraction, turn off the phone and television and just enjoy quality time together. However, with the crazy schedules kids have nowadays of extra tuition classes, music lessons, and other extracurricular activities, and parents working full-time, it can be difficult to find a common time every day where the whole family can sit down together to have a meal. The next best thing then is to try to have family mealtimes at least three or four times a week. If you can’t manage that, it might be time to shift things around in your schedule to make room for more family mealtimes. Sometimes, when having dinner together isn’t working out because most of the family can’t make it, a family breakfast would do just as well.
4. Have a “Make Your Own Meal” Night Once in a While
This can be fun for everyone! Have a pizza night where everyone can make their own mini pizza and decide on what toppings to have. Put out toppings such as vegetables in addition to cheese. Chances are, if your child takes the topping to put on their pizza, they will most certainly eat it too. Tacos and spring rolls are other types of food that are easy for children to put together.
5. Turn Things on its Head
Having the same thing every day may cause your toddler to feel that dinnertime is a boring and tedious affair. Lack of novelty may cause them to resent mealtimes and pick at their food. To make them feel more excited and enthusiastic about mealtimes, change things up a little. Serve breakfast food such as cereal or bacon for dinner. Let them drink their milk out of special glasses. Serve food that they can eat with their fingers. Start with dessert. All these little touches take the monotony away and will make them excited about mealtimes.
6. Themed Dinners
Have themed dinner nights if you can. Let your kids know what the theme for tonight’s dinner is and prep accordingly. Say you have decided that tonight shall be “Pokemon Night”, prepare food and drinks in the shape of Pokemon. Let your child come to dinner dressed as a Pokemon or even a Pokemon Trainer. They will surely get a kick out of that. Or perhaps a colour themed night, where all the food served, is in that chosen colour, for example, red. You can have red peppers, chilli, red herrings, strawberry jam, watermelon. Well, you get the idea.
7. Allow Children to Serve Themselves as Soon as they are Able to
Instead of scooping food for your child and handing it to them on a plate, lay out the food on the table and let them try their hand at serving food for themselves. This will let them learn how much food is appropriate for themselves. Give them child-sized portions of food and let them decide how much they will eat. Avoid giving them too big portions of food as it may lead to overeating. Instead, encourage them to tell you if they are still hungry and want more.
8. Have an Occasional Treat at the End of Mealtimes
While you can give your children a sweet treat or dessert after their meals, it is important not to use that as a bribing tool or a punishment threat. For example, it’s not a good idea to say, “If you finish your food, you can have a cookie.” This will only make your child more interested in sweets than healthy food. You also do not have to prepare a treat after every meal. This might cause children to not finish their food in order to leave room for dessert. Instead, keep ice cream and cookies to what they are — a treat once in a while.
9. Get Out of the House
Dinner doesn’t always have to be at home! Get out of the house and do something fun as a family. Pack a basket of food and drinks and have a picnic at the park downstairs. Head to your favourite kid-friendly restaurant. Or rather, head to your kids’ favourite restaurant. Do we hear chants for fast food?
10. Talk to Each Other
Mealtimes shouldn’t be a quiet and boring affair where you just eat your food and leave the table once you have finished. Talk to one another about your day and ask questions. Ask about school and what they have done for the day. However, it shouldn’t feel like an interrogation where you grill your child to see if they have done well. Just let the conversation flow naturally and see where it goes. Encourage them to ask questions too and don’t forget to share about your day.
If no one wants to talk about their day, talk about neutral topics such as the latest cartoon, where they would like to go for a trip or even their favourite toy. This will help you get to know your child better too.
There you have it, some tips and suggestions to make family mealtimes fun and enjoyable for everyone. Of course, don’t expect miracles because these things take time. Persevere and soon your kids will learn to enjoy and look forward to family mealtimes.