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Making Mealtime Pleasant

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With a bit of insight and effort, we can ensure that family meals are a positive experience.

I’m lucky. I have the fondest memories of family dinners, both when growing up and when we were raising our girls. But now it’s estimated that just 28% of families eat together seven nights a week.

Sure, today’s families are busy. But I wonder if family meals have declined because they’re often perceived as stressful. Yet, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Here are some ways to ensure mealtime is a positive experience for all family members.

1. Minimize behavior that we already know annoys us. For example, if our child rocks in his chair, we can buy him a vestibular cushion which then satisfies his need to rock without distracting others. We can also create ways for everyone to rock during mealtime (e.g. all family members rock three times whenever something is passed to someone).

If our child likes to stand while eating, we can deliberately leave something on the kitchen counter and then ask our needing-to-stand child to get it for us. This gives our child a chance to get up, only now he’s doing so in a way that helps the rest of the family.

If our child takes forever to finish his food, we give him less food while eating with the family (he can have more after mealtime if he’s still hungry). We can also set a time when mealtime is over—regardless whether everyone has finished the food on the plate.  In such case, the plates are cleared and any food left on the child’s plate is then served to him at the beginning of the next meal, ensuring food isn’t wasted.

If our child has a hard time sitting in general, we can excuse him early, acknowledging that we’ve enjoyed her company and understand it’s hard for her to sit for long periods of time. Who says every family member—regardless of age or differing brain organization profiles—has to sit the same amount of time for a meal?

2. Engage in only positive interactions. During the meal, family members tell stories about their day, share jokes or riddles, give opinions on current events, and answer open-ended creative thinking questions. Speeches on how to be better organized with homework, the importance of doing chores without complaining, and other concerns are tabled for another time.

3. Decide whether good manners trump everything during mealtime. When kids have retained primitive reflexes and underdeveloped lower centers, they often eat as though they were a toddler. For example, they prefer using their hands over utensils.  They’re messy. They chew with her mouth open. They can’t keep a napkin on their lap.  Sure, we can harp on showing good manners at every meal (even though prior reprimands have not yielded a change), but that means we also forego everything else positive that comes with sharing a family meal. So, we need to decide: Is it worth it?

4.  Understand how underdeveloped lower centers of the brain can interfere with how food feels and tastes. When the midbrain is underdeveloped, some kids have an aversion to how certain foods feel—even more so than how the food actually tastes—in their mouth. This child may seem like a “fussy eater,” but it’s different than the child who just doesn’t feel like trying a new food or insists on having whatever he wants to eat.  Does that mean that we turn our kitchen into a restaurant and cook completely different meals for everyone? No. But we find ways to modify within what’s been prepared. For example, if our child does not like tomatoes, we can serve him spaghetti noodles with butter instead of sauce.

5. Include our kids in the preparation of meals. Why not have our kids shop and help prepare the food? How about starting a garden?  How about giving them a chance to plan the menu or even create an original dish?  All of the above help kids become more generally invested in mealtime.

6. Ban all electronics from the table. That, of course, also includes having the TV on in the background.

So, perhaps, we no longer strive for a perfect Emily Post etiquette kind of meal.  Instead, maybe, we look at mealtime as a wonderful opportunity to connect with and honor all family members.

 

 

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