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Unicorns and Family Dinnertime

Somewhere between Pinterest-worthy menus, the rosy-cheeked smiles of a Norman Rockwell illustration and fights over McDonald Happy Meal toys in front of the TV, there exists the elusive unicorn of family life, the peaceful and practical family dinner time.

Weeknights, getting a healthy meal on the table for myself and my two children at the end of a long work day was a challenge for me. Goodness knows I did not always get it right. Sports and school activities and special demands of my job sometimes meant 3 bowls of cereal before basketball for one and takeout sushi at 9:30 for the other. I did learn a few things along the way though.

Family meals are important. Feeding of babies and toddler is something most new parents care about a great deal. They study it! They read books and ask questions of their pediatrician and friends about everything from nursing schedules to the relative merits of soy vs. almond vs. oat vs. coconut vs. cow's milk. They learn because we accept that it is important to know how dishes and utensils make it easier for baby to self feed, that talking to baby and smiling during feeding makes the experience more pleasant, that introducing a wide variety of foods helps foster healthy eating habits, and that we should do our best to ensure their food is as safe and nutritionally sound as possible.

What we tend to forget is that these concepts are important for the rest of the family as well. Family time, that is, engaging in activity that involves face-to-face contact, conversation, problem solving or meaningful work, learning, relaxation or play, is the foundation for our child's social well being. It can be playing a board game together or planting a window garden. It is not piling everyone in the car and spending 2 hours at a movie or sporting event where all attention is on the entertainment. Nor is it chaperoning the kids to the mall to hang out with their friends. These may be worthwhile social activities but they aren't true family time - although the ride home in the dark and quiet of the car, can be a wonderful opportunity for intimate and meaningful one-on-one parent-child conversation. Meals can provide one of the best family experiences because it engages virtually all the sense and is emotionally rich and rewarding. Conversely, negative mealtime experiences can have physical and psychological effects far into adulthood.

The social aspects are as important as the nutritional ones. Sitting down together for a meal at least once a day benefits the physical and emotional health, education and welfare of all family members in many ways: in sharing and teaching healthy habits, culture, language skills, social skills and general knowledge. The food-court mentality of Jacob eats a burrito, Dad has a burger, and Shiloh always has macaroni and cheese comes at a cost. Many aspects of our modern world teach our children that the world revolves around them. Eating at the food court or a restaurant, or this trend where prepared foods come in individual portions and parents prepare different meals for each kid, reinforces that ME-ME-ME focus. When Mom or Dad becomes a short order cook, not only do children lose the opportunity to try new foods, but the sharing, compromise and sense of community is lost.

A study in the Archives of Family Medicine found that more family meals tends to mean less soda and fried food and far more fruits and vegetables. Even simple meals prepared at home tend to be more nutritious. Beyond promoting balance and variety in kids' diets, meals together send the message that citizenship in a family means everyone’s preferences are respected but no one person (parent or child) is catered to at the expense of the others. A family meal is about sharing. Not everyone gets their ideal menu every night and we learn to accept small disappointments, try something someone else loves, and look forward to the next day’s offering.

Manners, the ways we agree to behave with others in order that everyone know what to expect from each other – which makes everyone more relaxed and comfortable – are taught most often around the table. This is where a family builds its identity and culture. Family stories and legends are passed down, jokes told, and the wider world examined through the lens of a family's values. Simple rituals foster a sense of belonging and history. Younger kids pick up vocabulary and a sense of how conversation is structured. They hear how a problem is solved, learn to listen to other people's concerns and respect differing opinions. Older children have a chance to speak and share new ideas in a safe environment where they know they are free from ridicule. Other than a family’s worship, family meals may be the most spiritual time they spend together – not only through prayers, but talking about our relationship with creation and each other.

Participation = Cooperation. Preparing meals together is a unique and powerful classroom. We learn about the sources of our food and it connects us with the earth and all those who labor to provide them. Children are growing up today who have never made the connection between what is on their plates or slapped on a bun and the plants and animals in the field or the farmers, food processing plants, truckers and food workers who prepare it for the table. Shopping and preparing foods together teaches valuable life skills and independence, and can be a creative outlet for teens. Even toddlers can help set and clear the table, find the carrots in the crisper drawer or carry the pasta pot from the cupboard to Dad. School age children can and should be taught to use knives and kitchen tools and appliances safely. It gives them a wonderful sense of achievement and approval. Measuring teaches math skills. Arranging the colorful elements of a salad and ensuring the family “eats a rainbow” can be a sensory delight and an artistic expression. When children are included in meal preparation and in cleanup afterward, it should not be viewed as a chore, but rather as a family activity.

Keep expectations realistic - of them and of you. A child may have 10,000 taste buds and they are replaced about every two weeks. As we get older, we lose a few every year until a middle aged person may have half that number. Add to the sensory experience the olfactory nerves and that the sheer number of toddler brain synapses exponentially outnumber ours and you can see why there's a whole lot going on that can overwhelm a little eater. Something that tastes good to them truly may taste totally different three weeks later. They aren't choosing to eat sweet potatoes and apple juice to the exclusion of all other foods to be stubborn. They need a rest!

Try not to overwhelm little ones visually. Keep servings super small and only two or three items on the plate at a time - like quarter of a quarter pound burger, 3 green beans and a quarter of an apricot. Always serve at least one food each child likes but everyone gets the same three items to start. Let them know they may ask for other foods at the table or more of anything on their plate when their serving of that food is gone. Do not require that they finish everything on their plate before receiving more of a favored food. Until a child is 5 or 6 their eyes are definitely bigger than their stomachs so keep each successive helping as small or smaller than the first so it does not cause anxiety for you over wasted food. Continue to offer new foods regularly and repeatedly but just offer. Sweets are best served immediately at the end of the dinner meal (They will want less of it than they would an hour later when their tummy is empty again). Withholding dessert because a child did not eat a particular food or a particular amount may create more long term resistance to the food and causes unnecessary conflict and anxiety that creates an unpleasant atmosphere for everyone at the table. Ultimately, we cannot control what our children eat, nor should we try. What we can do ad want to do is influence their attitudes and experience with food. Sometimes that means coming to terms with our own attitudes around food and offering foods we have prepared.

The most important aspect of the meal is that the atmosphere be relaxed and positive. Children's mealtimes should be timed for their needs and as regular as possible. Keep meals simple until they are at least in school. Simple does not have to mean boring but if the primary cook in the family is stressed and worn out, mealtime will lose its flavor. Have a couple of go-to meals that you always have on hand, you know they will eat, and can literally have on the table in fifteen minutes with minimal effort. If the adults want gourmet and candlelight, it is perfectly okay to sit with the kids for a cheerful fifteen minutes over warmed up noodles with butter and their favorite green slime smoothie at 5:00 when they're hungry and then let them play quietly or watch a video while you and your spouse have takeout Seafood Fra Diavolo and a glass of Prosecco at 6:30, then join you for dessert.

Our teens are growing and developing nearly as fast as infants and toddlers and their nutritional needs are as complex, yet their diets are often the worst in the family. A frank but non-judgmental discussion about fueling their amazing body to be the best they can be is a great idea. Teens value your respect and being given the opportunity to weigh in on decisions that affect them. Planning meals and shopping together and expanding your culinary repertoire to include some new dishes they have chosen will go a long way toward their willingness to try something new. Are they interested in other cultures, sustainability or plant-based diets? Exploring new cuisines can be an adventure you share that broadens the whole family's experience and deepens your relationship with your teen as well. Who knows, you might be adding acai bowls or tabbouleh to your regular recipe rotation!

In my next blog post, I will share some fun mealtime ideas, rituals and kid friendly recipes from our family to yours.

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