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Realistic Family Meals that Connect

By: Jennifer Baugh RDN, LD

Could a family meal be part of your self-care routine? Or is that a crazy thought? If you don’t like cooking, have picky eaters, differences in taste, no time, then, yes, the idea of a family meal is a bit nutty. The traditional ideal of a family meal is sitting down together at one table, sharing home cooked food, and engaging in conversation. Nowadays, many families are so busy, the idea of a family meal seems out of reach. And yet, if we can be flexible and open-minded about what it means to have a family meal, then this concept becomes more realistic and maybe even enjoyable. After all, food is more than food: it is a means to connect with others through sharing the experience of a basic need, like eating. When we share food with others, it helps us connect to each other, and creating connections is a form of self-care. If family dinners seem out of reach, here are some tips for a more realistic approach.

6 Tips for a Realistic Family Meal that Connects

  1. Have food, less distractions. If the television, phone, or devices are out, that is a distraction from connecting with humans in the same room as you. Dare to engage and ask open-ended questions that show the other human you care about them. If that is not working out, be patient with them opening up and consider sharing something about you.
  2. Invite pleasantness. If you need to resolve a conflict, family dinner is not the time. Of course, creating the space to have difficult conversations is important. Family meals are just not it. The more families fight while eating, the more likely this will affect our relationship with food. Keep conversations light and positive. Also, any dieting talk (calories, weight) or forced eating (clean plate club, bargaining) is a great way to ruin a meal and create a poor relationship with food.
  3. Share responsibility. As young as 2 years old, kids can develop essential kitchen skills to last them for life. This also allows them to explore food, which is important for them expanding their food preferences. Allow younger kids to stir, mix, rinse, and pour. Save the knife skills for the older kids. Create the expectation that everyone will help in some way. Giving choices of their responsibility can help their attitude. Task choices can be from planning, shopping, budgeting, cooking, setting the table, and cleaning.
  4. Create ownership. This means everyone gets a say in what food is served. It does not have to be all the time or for everything eaten, but if there is a dictatorship with food choice, that is a sure fire way to create discontent. If you are a parent, the division of responsibility is to provide food and let the child decide what and how to eat. My favorite resource for tools around family dinner is the Ellyn Satter Institute and for picky eaters, Instagram account @kids.eat.in.color.
  5. It does not have to be dinner. Maybe dinner time is chaos, especially for those with after work or school activities. Would breakfast or lunch work instead? Is there one meal of the week that could be reserved for bringing the family together?
  6. Put it on the calendar. Planning, shopping, and cooking does take time, so if you struggle with fitting this into your day, ask yourself what can take a backseat for at least one weekly family dinner? What resources and tools do you have to make it happen? If you do not know where to start, start by asking friends or family about what you can do. You can also consider booking a nutrition session with one of the Open Hand Atlanta dietitians to help you get started.

Family meals can mean taking a break from the outside world to connect with those you love and care for. You can use this time to take a breath, look at what is in front of you, and be present. Have you heard the expression, rest, and digest? Meals are definitely more enjoyable if you create a bit more space for resting. Resting means, having a place to sit, having food, and clearing distractions.

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