Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Tips on Making Family Dinner Work, #1

I know that making family dinner happen is not easy. I understand the challenges; I've been there. Here are some of my random thoughts on how to face one of the most typical challenges.
Challenge: Kids need to eat early; partner comes home too late for full family dinner

Suggestion: Let the kids have an early dinner, but make it a "real dinner" too.
Make it a "real dinner" with either the food or the tone (or both). Don't just serve out mac and cheese and stand over them while they eat it. Or clean up the kitchen, or the house, while they eat "kid dinner". Sit down with your kids. Talk to them. Eat some of what they are eating or a have a snack when they eat. You can have a "second dinner" with your partner later, or skip the later dinner and just sit to keep company with your spouse.

Of course, parenting is all about multi-tasking and it is "efficient" to clean up while they eat. But family dinner is not about efficient; it's about spending time together and paying attention to one another. Your kids being "picky" or refusing to eat what's served may be rooted in wanting more attention. Refusing to eat brings you to the table, doesn't it? Give them attention without focusing on the food. Try to think of "attention" as preventive medicine to avoid unwanted behaviors.

Ideally, you are only making one dinner (that's time efficient). So perhaps you are serving the kids from the communal pot and you'll eat the same with your partner when he or she comes home. Or you cook one sauce that goes over two separately cooked pots of pasta. (Get a hand-held pasta strainer, so that you can remove the pasta and save the hot water for another round of cooking.) If you must serve two dinners because of the time crunch, find ways to streamline the process.

One mom friend of mine told me that her kids eat early, but then they have dessert and talk with Dad once he gets home. They make that their time for all sitting together for a few minutes before bedtime. Another friend, whose partner can never make it to dinner because of work, told me that she tries to make dinner with her son special by lighting a small tea light candle when they are eating together. It sets a mood, and gets their attention that this is "family time." Anything can work: the idea is to create a family dinner ritual, be it with one parent or two, and to enjoy that time together every night.

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