So, you’ve read Dietitian Ashley’s post on family meal planning, successfully cooked up a delicious meal, and finally wrangled the family members to the dinner table….but now what? Families with teens often have difficulty engaging their children in conversation, and when it does happen, sometimes only a handful of words are spoken. Many of us have experienced a family dinner or two that flew a bit off the rails, whether a sensitive topic was discussed, near-inedible food was forced to be eaten, or children felt berated by parents about their unfinished chores. Although family meals are not always a magical experience, the benefits make the hassle all worthwhile. Here’s a quick guide to keeping your family meal time a peaceful, delicious experience for all.
Make eating times pleasant
Let one of your family members pick out background music to listen to. Allow your family to have a say in what’s on the menu. Choose a time that’s most convenient for all members of the family. Family meals should be a special, celebrated gathering in your home, so make sure each family member feels excited to be part of it.
Control the technology
Put away phones or create your own family rules such as a ‘one glance at your phone’ policy during the meal. Studies have consistently found that the more television a child watches, the less fruits and vegetables a child consumes, so try turning off the television during mealtimes as well.
Don’t put too much focus on food
Remember that the parent is in charge of what, when, and where the family is eating, but children are responsible for how much and whether they’re eating. Commenting on your child’s eating habits can in turn lead to unhealthy relationships with food. Whether it’s being too forceful with your child’s vegetable consumption or commenting on how much food your child has consumed during the meal, these comments can have negative outcomes. Try to remember to keep comments about food minimal and positive. If you would like to discuss food, try asking them what they like about the meal or what was their favorite thing they ate today.
What to really talk about
Offer your support to family members as often as possible. Meal time is a chance for family members to unwind and talk about issues and successes they’ve had throughout the day. If you have a child in school, ask them about any upcoming school projects they might need help on. Do they have any plays, games, or school events coming up that you can attend? Ask if any setbacks or struggles happened at school, and see if they need your support.
Example conversation starters by age
Sometimes just starting with a fun topic can get the conversation flowing. Here’s a few examples of questions depending on the age group.
- If you had superpowers, what would they be, and how would you use them to help people?
- Do you know how your name was chosen?
- What’s your favorite thing to do outside and why?
- If we could rebuild our house with Legos, what colors would you choose for each of our rooms?
- Create a brand-new holiday along with new traditions for the world. Describe the what, when, why and how.
- If you could change anything about school, what would it be? Why do you think that would benefit the students?
- If you were elected president tomorrow, what would be your first order of business?
- Two truths and a lie: every family member comes up with two truths and a lie about their day, and everyone guesses which is the lie.
Brainstorm new family traditions
Family meals are also a great time to brainstorm new traditions for your family. Here’s a few ideas to get your gears turning:
- Discuss current events: An easy way to get children involved in family meals conversation is to let them pick a current event that piqued their interest that day and talk about how that made them feel. Parents can assist by keeping local magazines and newspapers around for their kids to flip through. Alternate which family member is in charge of bringing a topic to dinner and have a parent help facilitate the conversation. This is a great exercise to help teach your kids to stay informed about local and global events.
o Without context and reassurance, subjects they hear from the news can appear more unsafe to children than they actually are. The news can be a bit scary at times, however talking through events as a family can help children feel more supported and at ease.
- Dinner and a poem: A personal favorite tradition that has been practiced at my dinner table, reading a poem or a quote and discussing it among the family can be an amazing gateway that encourages critical thinking in the minds of both children and adults.
Do you have a fun family tradition at your home? We’d love to hear about it! Email it to: firstname.lastname@example.org.