by Rachel Turiel
Eating with children can feel like you’re at one of those classy dinner theaters except with a vague circusy theme. See the clowns! The galumphing elephants! Don’t miss biting monkeys! It’s no wonder moms of the 1950‘s mixed themselves a martini before dinner. For some families, the dinner meal is the singular time everyone is gathered together. Without putting undue pressure on the nightly ritual, here are some ways to bring more intention, respect and presence to the family meal.
1. Marking the start of dinner.
I can remember dinners when, by the time I ferried all the condiments to the table, or poured everyone’s water, my kids had practically finished their meal. This made me feel like a waitress at a speed-eating diner. Now, we start our meal together, after the sharing of gratitude. Each of us shares, briefly, what we’re grateful for today, and then we all—often in singsongy unison—thank the cook. This ritual precedes every dinner and marks the first lifting of the fork. It would be false to say that the kids don’t occasionally want to charge through “thankfuls,” bury their heads in their plates and hit the “on” switch. But, voicing gratitude slows us down, cinching us together in the moment, and as the scientists say, practicing gratitude brings more happiness and better health.
2. We all eat (roughly) the same thing.
There are items my children actively dislike (for my son, bananas and avocados; for my daughter, mushrooms. Here they get a free pass). And then there are myriad things that they’re tentative about, about which they may say, politely, “I’m not really attracted to kale.” Much of this is due to the newness, the greenness, the vegetableness of the item. And yet, it is my job to put a diverse selection of food in front of them, to discharge their childlike fears of the unknown.
My husband and I may have mega-servings of salad or other vegetables, while the kids receive a tiny, benign sliver of sauteed kale on their plates. And then we remark, “Wow, look at you! Last year you were nervous about trying kale; you’re getting so adventurous!”
A kid who decides they’re “not attracted” to a meal does not get a peanut butter sandwich instead. How would that help them work through their fear of new and different foods? Our kids are encouraged to eat what they like (of which there is always plenty) and leave the rest. And as we say in our house, where we stop snacking 2-3 hours before dinner, “hunger is the best sauce.”
3. Creating, kid-friendly, lively conversation.
It’s true that by the dinner hour my husband and I have much to discuss, much that is of little interest to the kids (hello bills and house repairs!). However, it turns out the kids are interested in some of the work challenges and triumphs that arise throughout our day, and offering their uncluttered, childlike input allows them to feel involved. The kids feel like they know the “cast-of-characters” that comprise my husband’s co-workers, as well as my various editors and their attendant quirks. When asked, “How was your day?” it seems the kids have nothing to share. But, more pointed questions like, “Who did you play with at recess?” or (for my food-enthusiast daughter), “What did other kids have in their school lunch today?” can spark a flame of deep and valuable sharing.
4. We stay at the table until everyone is done eating.
This is a hard one. The kids are usually done first and are revved up to return to their work of Legos and rat-fondling (my daughter has a rat named Martha). We’ve noticed that if the kids know they’re to stay until we’re all done eating, they’re more likely to slow down, to eat more, and maybe share one more tidbit about how it felt when the neighbors said they couldn’t play on the ad-hoc backyard baseball team, feelings which I’m grateful to be made aware of, grateful to help them process.
These four actions are intentions, nightly goals. And if it all breaks down, which it will, I’ll allow a sobbing child onto my lap, offering empathy for the current grievance, and remind myself that there’s always tomorrow.
Rachel Turiel tends an urban homestead in Colorado. She is the managing editor of the magazine Edible Southwest Colorado, a contributing writer to NPR “Earth Notes,” and a 6-year columnist for the Durango Herald newspaper. Read more here.