Years of research has proven that family meals build healthy families. In my experience, family meals are a powerful tool for staying connected and catching the early warning signs when someone is having a hard time emotionally, spiritually or mentally.
Although the benefits are well-documented, many families struggle to make the family meal a consistent part of their weekly schedule. Perhaps we feel too busy, or we feel our efforts in the past haven’t been successful or enjoyable. Here are five tips to help make dinner with the family successful, because I believe that if we can feel successful we will be more consistent.
Good planning and hard work lead to prosperity, but hasty shortcuts lead to poverty.
Proverbs 21:5 NLT
If consistent family meals seem daunting, start with small steps. It may be that you can do one meal per week. Great – start there. You may have to plan several weeks in advance so that you can get ahead of everyone’s schedules. Let everyone know that you want to have the family together for dinner more often. Pick a night most likely to work and give ample notice.
Make the first meal on the new schedule something memorable. It will take work, but your effort will set the tone for how important this is. It doesn’t have to be expensive, just memorable. We started with a ‘build-your-own’ sandwich bar with chips and cookies (far from our usually healthy meal but a favorite for the kids) in the living room and played a card game around the coffee table. We got a couple of $5 Jamba Juice cards for the winners to make it interesting – and memorable.
The goal is to make the family meal something to look forward to. It took some time, but even in the hectic high school days, Monday night dinners became sacred for our family.
Protect the atmosphere
It is to one’s honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel.
Proverbs 20:3 NIV
Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.
Proverbs 17:14 NIV
The main goal of the family dinner is to connect relationally, yet dinner time can be a volatile time for families. Stressed and tired parents, rivalries between siblings, unresolved hurt feelings and misplaced emotions can fuel unpleasant interactions and destroy the opportunity to connect.
Often this is the only time whole family is in one place so it’s not surprising that emotions come out. So, it’s important to protect the atmosphere of the family dinner by working on family relationships in between family meals. Set up times to talk or get help from people who know your family.
Every family needs training when it comes to managing emotions in the home. Training includes the need to learn to resolve conflict, overcome misunderstandings, regulate our emotions, learn to be considerate and respect each other’s feelings – to name a few. Training requires repetition…lots of repetition, so don’t wait until family dinner to resolve conflicts. Remember, family relationships are a work in progress (emphasis on the word “work”).
Make it a Win/Win
Family meal times can become a battleground between kids and parents over food.
Our children believe that if we really love them we’d give them ice-cream for dinner. And we know that because we love them we are going to give them something healthy to eat, like spinach.
It’s important not to make our dinner plans revolve around the finicky eater whose likes and dislikes change from day to day. Parents should serve the same healthy meal to the entire family but at the same time include something you know everyone – particularly your finicky eater – will eat.
For instance, if you are serving spaghetti and salad, include additional healthy sides you know your kids will eat like grapes and yogurt. If the finicky eater will not eat spaghetti let them know they must find something on the table they are willing to eat. They will choose the grapes and yogurt and you will have avoided a disruptive showdown while meeting a nutritional need. This is a win/win. We can then focus on our meal time goal of making relationship connections rather than spending our relationship capital on a food fight.
Good conversations require work
… For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.
Luke 6:45 NIV
This Scripture teaches that if we want to know what is in our childrens’ hearts we need to get them to talk. The family dinner is a perfect opportunity to have great conversations and learn what our kids are thinking and feeling and what their interests, fears, concerns, guilt and desires are. Unfortunately, for some families, conversations don’t happen easily – dinner can be a quiet and awkward experience. For other families, mine for example, dinner can be loud and chaotic with everyone competing to talk. Although these appear diametrically different in practice, they both fail to produce conversations that reveal the heart.
My strength has always been my ability to carry a conversation and like most parents I genuinely am interested in knowing what my kids are thinking and feeling. I stubbornly believed that being interested and wanting to talk should make me successful. Unfortunately, I could not draw out my kids without making them feel like they were being interrogated or that I had a hidden agenda. I needed help.
I learned that while I had great intent, I wasn’t doing the work to understand their world or their interests. I needed to become knowledgeable about the things they were interested in: current events, music, hobbies, people for example. If we could generate conversations about things they were interested in they would more likely talk and if they were talking, especially about things they were interested, in they would reveal more of what was in their heart.
What are your kids interested in? Can you carry a conversation on those subjects?
Patience and kindness are needed
Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?
Romans 2:4 NIV
Forbearance (n): the quality of someone who is patient and able to deal with a difficult person or situation without becoming angry.
It’s humbling to think that God had to demonstrate forbearance with us. We need to imitate God’s forbearance if we are going to make the family dinner a success. Kids don’t immediately reward us for trying to make a difference or change for the better. Kids, especially teens, can be insecure, emotional, immature and self-focused … not unlike you and me at times if we are willing to be honest with ourselves. Yet God is patient and kind to us.
Making family dinners a success requires patience, forbearance, and kindness. Without patience we will get angry or quit when things are difficult. It takes patience and forbearance to be consistent and success requires consistency. You should consider your family dinner a success if you plan it and it actually happens – regardless of whether everyone loved the meal, an argument broke out or you failed to get a meaningful conversation going. Every meal is an opportunity to make progress. The point is that consistency over time will produce progress.
So get started, manage your expectations, expect difficulties and strive to be consistent. The successful family meal with all its benefits can help you connect and grow closer as a family.