A few weeks ago my husband and I had a longtime friends over for dinner. Let’s call them Jack and Jill. The couple brought their toddler with them, which was perfectly fine with us as it’s always the more the merrier at our house. As Jill and I prepared dinner, my husband and Jack began to set the table. My husband prepared five place settings, assuming their child would be eating with us. When Jack noticed this, he laughed a bit to himself and began to remove one of the place settings. My husband inquired as to who wouldn’t be eating at the table, to which Jack replied, “Oh, the baby won’t eat at the table.”
This left us both quite puzzled. Won’t? Or hasn’t been taught how? Knowing that Jill is a close friend and wouldn’t be offended if I was a bit nosey, I simply asked what that was about. She informed me that their little boy would only eat meals when set up in front of a television or iPad screen. I was shocked! Both parents are well educated, bright, social people. I began to wonder how they could think it was appropriate for a young child to eat by his lonesome in front of a screen. Where would he learn table manners? Or appropriate portioning? Or develop his conversation skills? Did the parents have any idea what he would miss out on? Then Jill informed me that she brought a lunchbox packed with the chicken nuggets and applesauce he eats, as he surely wouldn’t eat the dinner of barbecue chicken, roasted corn, and pasta salad we had just prepared. I was flabbergasted.
I often find through observation and anecdotal surveys that parents don’t think of the dinner table as a place for growth and learning but more as a place of function. Educational opportunities are often thought of as big events, say going to the zoo to see new animals or going on a vacation and experiencing a new environment. The dinner table is so often entirely overlooked – ignored and left to fade into the background covered in homework and laundry that needs folding.
When thinking about your family’s dinner routine, does it involve cooking four meals for four people – four different meals? How about serving dinner in four different rooms, everyone eating in their own corner? TV barking at you? iPads and mobile phones lit and chirping? Sounds like a case of dinner table neglect to me.
It may seem harmless, even beneficial, to allow family members to act as an individual at dinner – eat what they want, where they want, and when they want. But before reconciling your dinner-time fate to a disjointed and discombobulated mess, consider the benefits of eating as a family, even if it’s not the easier path.
In order for the family meal to function as it was intended, some basic rules need to be adhered to. These are rules for the parents to know and the kids to learn through demonstration and interaction.
- One meal for all
That’s right. No more fend-for-yourself mentality in the kitchen. This one meal can be take-out, freezer-to-oven prep, or homemade; it really doesn’t matter where it comes from. The big thing is that everyone at the table is eating the same meal – together. This seems like an insignificant, possibly nit-picking, detail. But really, it’s one of the most important factors at dinner.
Kids learn new foods by what the parents provide and how the parents react to new foods. Making chicken nuggets and French fries for your child while you eat something entirely different sends a very clear message to the kids: they are different and they don’t have to eat that food. Over time, they’ll learn that they are exempt from eating foods that aren’t at the top of their list and this breeds the entitlement behavior of I only have to eat what I want, when I want.
- Dinner has a scheduled start and an end
Dinnertime participants sit and stay at the table from the start of dinner to its end. When is dinner finished? When all participants have eaten enough to feel full, are satiated, and the conversation has come to a close.
Young kids should be expected to ask a parent “May I be excused?” Although this may seem excessively formal, training young kids to ask to be excused sets a clear boundary for when it is appropriate or inappropriate to leave the table and provides the parents with a cue for when the kids are getting tired, antsy, or need a more kid-friendly and engaging conversation. Don’t be afraid to deny the request, but do so politely and provide a parameter for when it is appropriate to ask again (e.g. “You’ll need to finish your chicken before leaving the table,” or, “Dad and I are discussing the weekend plan, you need to be present.”) If you feel the kids have eaten an acceptable amount and the conversation no longer requires their attention, politely affirm their request with, “You may, please clear your place setting, and (provide activity here – get ready for bed, continue homework, feed the dog, etc).”
- Hands off electronics
This goes for everyone at the table unless you are on-call for work. Don’t even place the phone or tablet on the table. Leave it in another room where it won’t be a temptation.
- Everyone helps
This isn’t to say that every person helps with every component. Have kids set the table, fill glasses with ice and water or milk, or collect the electronics. After dinner is the same expectation – everyone involved in eating the meal is expected to help clean the table, package leftovers, and tidy the kitchen.
- Foods are different, but not that different
New foods should be introduced alongside familiar foods to help mediate the stress that can accompany a new experience. By providing well-known (and liked) foods in addition to a new food you show that you acknowledge that the child has needs and preferences, affirming that their voice is valid and important, but doesn’t run the show.
The dinner table, when functioning to its potential, can be a place for discovery, growth, and fundamental family bonding. It’s no coincidence that every culture in every corner of the world has developed family or community center eating space – family meals are an integral component to the healthy development of not only children, but of the family as a whole.