Question: I love dinner traditions around the holidays. Do you have suggestions for how our family can make ordinary meals feel special?
Answer: While nothing quite matches a holiday dinner, we can look at what makes them special and apply the take-aways to any meal.
First, think about ambience. Invite the children to make place cards for each family member and to pick some greenery, flowers or branches from outside if possible. Play some quiet and relaxing music. Use cloth napkins, candles and “fancy” glasses and real plates (not plastic).
When my children were small and I was afraid of breakage, I purchased “fancy” tumblers made of real glass and mismatched china at thrift stores for a very low cost. Using real dishes, according to the Montessori approach, encourages children to treat their surroundings with “care and respect.” This care and respect is what we are hoping to capture in our ordinary family dinners.
Next, consider the conversation. At special dinners, we involve the entire family. The conversation is not about Mom and Dad catching up on their day or discussing the details of the week’s schedule. Start a tradition in your family of a question or series of questions. Some great ideas: “What are you grateful for?” “What did you do today that was kind?” “What do you appreciate about each person in the family?” You can Google “50 Questions To Ask Instead of ‘How Was Your Day?’” These questions are an invitation. No one is forced to participate.
This brings me to attitude. At holiday meals, we are focused on warm connection with our families. With some effort, we can carry this over into our ordinary family meals. To keep dinners pleasant for everyone, try these suggestions: Keep corrections to a minimum. If you really need to remind someone to finish chewing before speaking, a gentle “Ahem” and a tap on your own cheek is a good-enough reminder. As children grow, their motor skills improve and eating neatly becomes easier. Children learn what is modelled for them. Gentle reminders and modelling proper table manners are more effective than nagging and keep the mood at the table positive. If you really feel they need lessons to learn, make it fun. Pretend you are dining with the Queen or at a fancy restaurant. Kids playing with their food? Don’t worry! Research shows this makes them more adventurous eaters and can help their brain development.
Remember to avoid power struggles over food. I recommend that parents follow Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding. The parents decide what and when the children eat, the children decide if and how much they eat. Offer a variety of healthy foods you want your children to eat, including one thing you know they will eat so no one goes hungry. Enjoy your own food and take the pressure off of them to try it. Putting pressure on kids can actually make them more picky. If you’re worried your child won’t be able to sleep if they’re hungry, build the bedtime snack into your routine. Offer leftover dinner or another healthy option.
Finally, save your energy for everything above. If we are stressed at dinner, we won’t be able to enjoy the meal or our children. That means keep your dinner preparations to a minimum. Make a pot of stew on Sunday and have the leftovers for a night or two. Have breakfast for dinner and serve eggs and fruit. Use jarred pasta sauce (or make and freeze your own) and cut up some veggies. Using these suggestions, we can recreate the ambience and the warm feelings of a holiday dinner every day.
And ultimately, remember this: Be together. Try to eat as a family as much as possible. If the kids can’t wait until your partner is home? Serve them dinner early or tide them over with a veggie-and-fruit platter (watch how much they eat when they are hungry). If they have eaten the majority of their meal before you can be together, make them a fruit smoothie and have them join you for “dessert.”
Sarah Rosensweet is a parenting coach who lives in Toronto with her husband and three kids, aged 12, 15 and 18.
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