We’ve all heard of the benefits of the family meal, with studies showing that regular family meals make children less prone to obesity and drug addiction.
So we scramble to make time for the family meal. The table is set. The food is hot. Everyone’s seated. Now for the real challenge: keeping your children at the table.
A recent article in a food magazine had a column on how to keep restless kids at the table during holiday dinners. Here are some of the deeply flawed suggestions the author gave to parents.
- provide a distraction (crayons, paper, stickers)
- use bribes (having some prizes available to give to the child who sat the most politely and the longest, but then surprising all the children at the end of the meal by giving a gift to every child)
- ask your children to put on a show (teach them a few magic tricks they can do before and after dinner)
The above tips are absolutely wonderful ways to diminish the social skills your child needs later in life. There simply must be a wiser way that doesn’t involve the shenanigans.
Children as young as 18 months can sit at the table for 15 to 20 minutes if they are hungry. But 2 to 3 year olds should be able to sit for a family meal without resorting to the antics.
- First, be intentional about making it clear that family mealtime is important.
Parents must teach that mealtime is mealtime, not playtime, TV time, iPhone or LeapFrog time.
- Second, establish regular eating times.
If your children have been snacking all day, they aren’t going to be hungry and will be less likely to be interested in sitting at the table. A snack between meals is appropriate, but there should be a cut-off time when snacks are no longer available.
- Third, involve the child in preparing the meal and setting the table.
A child who cuts the carrots is more likely to sit down and eat them. Having a small pitcher on the table for your child to fill an empty glass is a great incentive for staying seated and drinking more. Start expecting your child to set his/her own place; when successful, expect help with setting the rest of the places.
- Fourth, be prepared to speak and listen.
Describe your day; ask your spouse to describe his; ask your children to describe theirs. “What went well?” “Which friends did you see today?” “Did the pet bird in your classroom do anything funny?” Remember, this should not to be an unpleasant time of constant correction: “Elbows off the table!” “Chew with your mouth closed!” Those skills need to be practiced during mealtime, but instilled outside of mealtime. Perhaps you can make the final part of mealtime a time to discuss after-dinner activities. “Shall we read first, or play games?” “Whose turn is it to choose the book, game?” You might say you feel like baking after dinner. “Does anyone want to help?”
- Fifth, when dinner is completed, everyone has a part.
Each clears his/her own place; someone loads the dishwasher; someone washes the pots; someone crumbs and wipes off the table; someone sweeps the floor; someone returns the chairs to their place; placemats or table cloth refreshed as needed.
There is a boatload of work on the front end. But the payoff is priceless: a harmonious family meal with everyone sitting together, eating properly, having polite conversation, working together–and enjoying it!