Take Back Dinner!

Make mealtimes meaningful. A local family life expert has advice for staying close to your kids during the most hectic time of the year.

October is the month that parents sometimes forget to breathe. School has fully ramped up, and the challenge of fitting in car-pools, homework, after-school activities and your own obligations leaves little time for anything else. You might not realize it, but your child likely feels as harried as you. Once the hectic school year ensues, many kids feel that they don’t get enough time with their parents. They miss playing outside with you and slow days at the pool. There are many reasons that eating meals with your kids is important, but for me, spending a slice of your busy days together is one of the most important. Of course, it can be difficult to find the time—especially if you have more than one child whose schedules conflict. To that end, here are four ways to capture those valuable mealtimes.

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Relinquish the rules. It might not be possible to eat dinner together every night, include every member of your family at every meal, or sit for longer than fifteen minutes, but that doesn’t mean you should give up! Simply do your best. Try having two “meal times.” You can eat the main course with one child and dessert with the other. Breakfast, brunch and lunch count too, so on the weekend, pancakes in the kitchen is perfect. Also, give yourself points for five minutes with your child eating frozen yogurt before soccer.

Plan ahead. While eating healthfully should be a priority, it is more important to be together than to serve gourmet meals. Keep your home stocked with easy, healthy choices that your kids enjoy. Frozen pizza, cold cuts, and chicken nuggets are fine in a pinch. Spend time sitting together, eating and talking, rather than cooking.

Chat with a purpose. Your goal during meals is to learn as much as possible about your child’s daily life. Since many kids don’t open up easily, it can be tricky to extract information from them. You are more likely to be successful if you listen more than you talk. Do your best to refrain from lecturing, opining or judging. Approach conversations seriously, no matter how trivial the topic may seem to you as an adult (“It must have been frustrating when Ben stole the ball from you!”) In addition, don’t ask too many questions, but when you do, instead of asking general questions (“How was school?), ask specific ones (“Was math hard today?” and “Who did you sit with at lunch?”) Finally, tell age-appropriate stories about your day. Your kids will enjoy them and it will encourage a give-and-take conversation.

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Focus on fun. Resist the urge to teach or discipline. A few basic rules are important (take your plate from the table, and don’t talk over others), but do your best not to focus on them. Be in the moment with your child—enjoying your time together without any electronics, including your phone!