Making Family Dinner Work for Picky Eaters and Reluctant Cooks
Family dinner often gets billed as a cure-all for various bad things: Researchers at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University argue that “parental engagement can be a simple, effective tool to help you prevent substance use in your kids,” while other experts suggest that kids who eat family meals perform better in school and are less likely to have eating disorders.
As parents, we have lots of opportunities to engage with our kids, especially when they’re young and need to be driven everywhere. And while the car is a great place to talk with your kid about difficult topics, the dinner table is another good option. I’m pretty sure family meals can promote world peace and help you live forever.
I just made that last part up, but let’s say for a minute family meals don’t really have all these benefits — can sitting down to a meal and talking with your family really hurt? This is where my daughter would chime in with, “If you make that meat loaf again it could.” I suspect the positive effects of family dinner may have more to do with families slowing down, taking a break from distractions (including technology) and spending time enjoying each other’s company than with any actual meal planning.
I hope so, at least, because one of my kids hates everything I serve.
Making Family Dinner Work for Picky Eaters
For a long time my husband and I bowed out of family dinners because of our picky daughter. It seemed whatever food I put on the table would cause her to recoil in horror. Her dismay at being expected to eat a SINGLE BITE OF CHICKEN would be expressed loudly and emphatically, and since I didn’t want to get involved in a battle of wills over food, I would bite my tongue off during our meals. And though that probably sounds really enjoyable to all of you, it was not, at all — and in fact, we stopped eating as a family until my daughter was four or so.
What we realized at that point is that the food wasn’t the really important part of sitting down to share a meal. What was important was that we were spending time together talking. So we made a point of including some things we knew the kids would eat at every meal, like carrots, yogurt and bread. Having these options on the table eased the pressure of expecting our daughter to consume — GASP — a piece of chicken.
When you think about and plan family meals, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the goal is to spend time together as a family, and sometimes you’ll have to be flexible about the food you serve in order to do that. Maybe instead of spending an hour chopping and sauteing things after a long day at work, you grab a rotisserie chicken and a tossed salad from the market on your way home. Go ahead — it’s still family dinner, even if the food is takeout. Sometimes your kids won’t want to eat what’s on the table. That’s fine — no one’s going to starve, and it’s a good chance for them to brush up on their sandwich making skills.
How to Make Dinner Without Making Yourself Crazy
If you hate cooking, you may not be all that excited about the idea of family dinner. And honestly, no one’s going to enjoy the meal if you’re exhausted and put out from having to cook for an hour. I really don’t enjoy cooking so I’ve ended up relying on simple and fast meals I can prepare in thirty minutes or so.
My go-to cookbooks are Desperation Dinners and Seat of the Pants Suppers. I’ve used them to develop a list of meals I can create quickly and easily and without having a total meltdown. This is no small feat considering my complete and utter lack of interest in cooking.
These aren’t Martha Stewart-qualities dinners, but remember the point is that you’re spending time with your family. You don’t need fancy gourmet cooking to accomplish that.
Of course, family dinner isn’t really about the food — it’s an opportunity to visit with your kids and hear about their lives. My dilemma is that I want to talk to my kids but I don’t necessarily want to play 20 questions to coax information out of them — and I definitely don’t want to talk about how disgusting this chicken is.
I recently heard about a great idea for getting your family to really talk at the table. The parents write topics on slips of paper; each person at the table draws a slip and talks about that topic. Providing something neutral and fun to talk about (“If you could be an animal, which one would you be?” or “What is something you’d like to be doing in ten years?”) and giving each child everyone’s full attention while they talk can help you get to know your kids in ways the typical dinnertime questioning — “How was your day?”— does not.
If making up your own questions feels like too much work, there are some simple boxed sets you can buy, like Table Topics or Dinner Games, that do the work for you. Both provide questions and activities designed to spark conversation, and the Dinner Games set even promises to “encourage kids to eat their veggies and finish their milk.”
I’d like to introduce them to my daughter, Madison “I-Don’t-Drink-Milk” Summers.
Show Us Your Family Dinner
I would like to challenge you to sit down tonight and eat dinner with your family. You can make your meal or grab take out. It doesn’t have to be fancy — we’re eating leftover salmon and couscous (this where Madison would insert her patented gagging sound) — but just making it a goal to sit down with your family at least a few times a week will have rewards. Sure there are health benefits, but really if it weren’t for family dinner, I might never have known that my son can quote entire scenes from Spongebob. Those are benefits you can’t put a price on.
Do me a favor, take a picture of you and your family enjoying a meal tonight and post a link to it in the comments. I can’t wait to show you a picture of my daughter gagging over her salmon. We’re making memories here, people.
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Photo source: Depositphotos/monkeybusiness