Life is busy. Add kids into the mix, and you are literally and figuratively pulled in multiple directions.
We all need to eat. How do we keep the chaos to a minimum and let a mealtime ritual become a source of managing our stress and maintaining connection?
Here are six mealtime tips to inspire healthy habits for you and your family.
These strategies help my family:
- make the time to be together — manage realistic expectations around family meals;
- keep on a strict budget;
- ensure suitable nutrition and;
- do so sustainably — creating long-term habits.
Give them a try. Share in the comments what works for you.
1. Every meal together counts.
After-school activities may not allow for daily family meals. Carving out time for a regular household meal where the family sits together, even just one or two a week, offers big benefits!
Jerica Berge, a professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, described some of these benefits in her research on the subject:
- generally, a healthier diet consumed,
- fewer disordered eating habits
- increased family connectedness
- higher success academically
- lower risk of substance abuse and;
- improved communication skills.
Be flexible with your schedule and when to accommodate family meals. Also be flexible with who is able to be at the table.
We are a family of four, plus two exchange students, however some family meal times due to schedules might be me and one of my children. This mealtime experience, even between the two of us, still help curate the benefits Berge describes.
Further with flexibility, keep in mind that meals can take place anywhere! Maybe it’s at home?
Maybe it at the kitchen in the office or a restaurant between destinations? Or, maybe it’s a a picnic in the park — however you can make your schedule align for even just a couple times a week.
How often do you eat together as a family?
Our ritual is weekdays: Monday-Thursday dinner with all members of our household, Friday a family we “co-parent” with us typically joins us, a lunch meal on the weekend is often saved to take place with grandparents, and the rest of the meals are much more flexible, especially breakfast — we are always flexible with breakfast.
I remember sharing this with a coworker years ago and they responded with complete shock that our family eats dinner together regularly! “It’s impossible for us,” they shared.
Morning schedules do not align for our family, even on the weekend with morning hockey practices (yes, we’re Canadian!). But don’t count breakfast out from your family mealtimes. If dinner does not work for you, perhaps a weekend breakfast does!
2. The table-time rules.
When at the table — we have rules:
- You don’t have to eat everything, but you have to try everything.
- There will always be something everyone likes at the table; however, we don’t cater to any one person’s favourites.
- Everyone in the household helps with the meal plan — and it’s a great conversation topic for the table. This helps with the point above.
- If you are hungry after dinner and you didn’t finish your plate because you are “too full” — guess what? You can eat our plate later or it will become lunch the next day. Be honest with us and let us know, after you have tried it, if you really don’t like it.
- No complaining. You “get what you get and you don’t get upset”. We a grateful to have to have plentiful food and acknowledge not everyone does.
- Use cutlery! This is a “work in progress” for my now 9-year-old who needs constant reminders to use a fork instead of his fingers.
- If you get up from the table to refill your water, or grab a new napkin — you offer to do the same for others.
- You participate in the conversation topics — more about this later.
- No electronics, except for translation devices to communicate with exchange students.
- When you are done eating, you clear your plate. You offer the same for others if you are getting up and they are also done — and you return to the table until others are finished.
Keep in mind, the implementation of these “rules” have been introduced as habits formed over-time, at age appropriate intervals, becoming the norm that my family enjoys today.
3. When it comes to meal planning, plan for one week — and repeat.
Set a theme and then simply tweak week-to-week. For example:
- Monday: Pasta
- Tuesday: Mexican
- Wednesday: Rice Combo
- Thursday: Pasta
- Friday: All American Diner
- Saturday: Leftovers
- Sunday: Make it up
We rotate through a “standard” menu that swaps out items using similar ingredients every other or every few days. This is also a great time saving measure for us to batch up staples like grains when we do!
Soulvaki one night and butter chicken over rice a few days later.
Spaghetti another and a chicken, feta, vegetable combo over noodles another day.
Point 2 highlights “All in the household help with the meal plan — and it’s a great conversation topic for the table.” Guess how “Mexican” became the theme for Tuesdays? My youngest loves “Taco Tuesdays!!!!!!!!” said with more enthusiasm than any Cinco de Mayo celebration. However, we enjoy the flexibility of rotating in enchiladas, burritos, nachos, taquitos, etc. as well.
If you are new to meal planning, keep your favourites in the rotation.
Everyone has some “go to meals”, even as simple as cheese toast and potato soup — a comforting classic for us. Keep those “go to comforts” in the mix for the first month, and slowly swap out as your meal planning expands. Other “go to meals” and quick fixes include:
- toasted sandwiches
- butter chicken with rice— from the jar
- coconut curry with rice— also from the jar
4. Commit to vegetables.
Realizing our one pot meals or fail-proof “go to meals” gravitate toward less and less vegetables, we introduced a rule that dinner MUST include a vegetable (and starches, such as potatoes, don’t count).
When in doubt, this means some cucumber slices and carrots sticks might accompany everyone’s plate but this commitment helps balance our nutrition.
Last night it was perogies, with a garden salad. YUM!
5. Conversation starters
Making the most of time together includes great conversation! We host exchange students, so this is also a great opportunity for them practice their English. These are conversation starters we use to keep the dialogue going:
- What was the best part of your day?
- What is one way you helped another person today?
- What are three things you are grateful for today?
- What three words would you use to describe yourself? Why did you choose those words?
- What three words would you use to describe someone else at the table?
- If you could eat just one food everyday for a month and nothing else, what would it be?
- If you could only eat three foods the rest of your life, what would they be?
- If you could travel anywhere, what three places would you travel to? Why?
- What is something you want to learn how to do and why?
Making the most out of mealtimes, means being realistic and working towards a sustainable routine to create long-term habits. Start with one meal and go from there? If you are a family that already enjoys regular meals together, reflect on why and how it works so you don’t lose this opportunity as your children grow.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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