The Importance of Family Dinners
If you have children, you most likely already know how important it is to eat dinner as a family. We did this almost every night when the kids were growing up. The kids were allowed to help get dinner on the table by helping whoever was cooking or by setting the table. We would let them help plan menus for the week and voice what they were “hungry” for. Each child of course had favorite meals. We would talk about how it wasn’t good to eat the same thing more than one day a week. How we should try to plan a variety of different meats or even some meatless meals throughout the week. Eating together as a family affords opportunities to bond and many teachable moments.
We couldn’t afford to eat out very often back then during those lean times. Actually when we did eat out, we always took the kids with us. So the kids grew up knowing how to behave and entertain themselves while we waited to be seated and while we waited for our food to arrive. We taught them that they needed to give the wait staff their undivided attention when they came to the table to take our orders. We felt it was important to include them in our restaurant meals because this taught them things like self control, manners, inside voices, trying new foods and so much more.
Now you may be wondering how we were able to get them to behave so well in public. We insisted that they bring either a puzzle book, a book they were reading or their GameBoy along with them. We all brought books with us. We kept one of those plastic zippered cases that had come with pillowcases in it with crossword puzzle, word search or sudoku books and a couple of pens in the mesh basket between the seats in our old minivan. If anyone forgot to bring their book or video games, they could always grab the puzzles books. Sometimes working the puzzles became a family affair. Sometimes we talked about the books we were reading and what we liked about them. The reading wasn’t really ever something we had to encourage. We are a family of book nerds. The kids always read well above their age/grade level.
The other thing that helped was the threat that if they couldn’t behave, we wouldn’t go out to dinner next week, we would stay at home instead. Another kind of cool thing we did was take turns picking where we went to eat. The main rule was no fast food, but it also had to be within the budget and nothing that any of us would seriously object to. The kids really put a lot of thought into where we would go when it was it was their week to pick. Since there were just the four of us, we each got to pick about once a month. We used to eat out on either Friday or Saturday night as a kind of celebration of making it to the weekend. This showed the kids that they were a part of the family and we valued their opinion and ability to choose where we went to eat. Mostly it taught them that we listened to what they had to say and valued them.
By including the children when we went out to eat, we were telling them that they were too important to us to miss the chance to eat dinner with them. Guiding them through the various menu options helped them with their reading. Seeing how much the various food items cost helps them understand the cost of food, so they tended to waste less. We let the kids help figure out the tip we should leave when they got older, encouraging them to do the math in their heads. We discussed how well the server did at keeping drinks refilled and that sort of thing. They grew up knowing the difference between good and bad service. We also taught them that no matter how bad the service you should always leave a minimum of fifteen percent tip because that was a huge part of their wage.
I’ve never understood why parents fed their kids early and had their own dinner later. There seem to be so many more reasons to eat together as a family. Whether you eat a gourmet meal at home or in a restaurant or have frozen dinners that were heated in a microwave, there are plenty of reasons to have “Face Time” around the dinner table. You can ask about their day, what they learned at school, what they want to be when they grow up and more. As a family, you can talk about what is going on the next day and who needs to be where and when. This helps so much to keep everything running smoothly. You can encourage them to eat what is on their plate and the importance of balancing the meals and including plenty of fruits and vegetables. We tried to only put on their plates what we thought they needed to eat. If they wanted more, they could have it once their plate was empty, but the kids, and us parents as well, were expected to clean our plates. We could ill afford to waste food. This helped them not to be picky eaters, and cut down on so many of the tantrums that might have happened. The amount of food on each plate depended on the kids’ age at the time. The oldest might have an additional bite or two of the vegetable of the day. We tended to follow the one bite for each year of their age guideline. We found we could get the kids to eat peas and green beans much better if we added Parmesan cheese to them. Not the gloppy orange “cheese” that is often smothering broccoli, but the grated stuff in the shaker. We discovered they would eat celery and carrot sticks better if they had something to dip them in, usually ranch dressing.
There were nights when either my husband or I had to miss a family meal because we had a night class. That just meant that the other parent got to have all the fun and answer all the questions. I remember one semester when hubby had a class on Wednesday nights, my mother would drive across town and she and I would take the kids to dinner, usually at MCL because we could keep everyone happy that way and it wasn’t too far from home. Usually my daughter spent the time in her car seat since she was just an infant. At any rate it was good that they had the chance to eat out with mom and grandma once a week. It was nice because I got a little help handling them and we all got out of the house for a while. The next night at the dinner table, dad could ask our son what he had to eat and where we had eaten the night before.
The kids liked to go to MCL as they got older because they got to choose what they ate and they loved the power of that. My daughter would order broccoli and the server would look at me like I was this cruel parent making the little preschool kid eat broccoli but not ordering it for myself. She would more often than not ask for the vegetable plate and get macaroni, mashed potatoes and broccoli. She always has been much better at eating fruits and vegetables than her older brother ever was.
Another thing we did for special dinners was have “romantic dinners” which really just meant that we put a bunch of candles on the table and dimmed the lights. This worked well when they might be having something they would rather not see while they ate it , but right now I can’t think what that might have been. The special thing about romantic dinners was that the kid who finished eating first got to blow out all the candles.
The time around the dinner table simply cannot be underestimated. It is important to your family to spend this time together. It may be the safe place they learn they can talk about anything with their families. It may be the best part of any day, and you get to spend it with your kids.