Do you ever have one of those nights where you have made an awesome dinner, it is ready and waiting on the table, but one child is outside and won’t come in, another one might be trying to finish homework, maybe another one says that they hate whatever you have cooked … and your husband, who said he would be home, is nowhere in sight?!
There are nights when this can happen in my house for sure, but I have also learned some tricks for getting the kids to the table and engaging them when they are there. Of course nothing is fool-proof, but I have pretty good luck with these!
Getting the family to the table
Meet them where they are
Before dinner is usually a time when everyone is off doing their own thing. I used to just yell “DINNER!” for anyone not in the kitchen with me — up the stairs and out the back door. There are times that I still do this, but it never works. It takes at least 10 yells, and by then I am exhausted, annoyed, and the food is lukewarm and limp. A few years ago I was at a lecture with Kim John Payne (if you are a frequent reader here, you will find his lectures have made quite an impact!) and he spoke about meeting kids where they are and acknowledging what they are doing. So if my son is playing with Legos, I will take 30 seconds, go stoop by his side, and in a calm voice, say, “I see you are playing with Legos, quite a village you have. I have made dinner, and now we can go down and eat it with your sisters. “I have tried this countless times, in the middle of tag games, plays, pictures and homework and it has always worked. If there is any resistance, I may add, “we will leave things just as they are and after dinner you can spend the time I wash dishes to finish up and then clean-up before bed.”
Have them help prepare the meal
My 7-year old daughter loves to help me in the kitchen. She can peel carrots, measure rice, fill pots with water, and one night a week, she actually makes a dish! I admit there are nights where I just want to be in my zone and get a meal made, and on those evenings, setting the table, filling water glasses, and washing lettuce are great tasks for an eager helper! I also find that pulling eager helpers into the kitchen is a great way to connect and get kids closer to the sitting-down part. There are definitely days that this works really great for me (kid days) and days where I feel the need to move fast (work day). Of course the fast days are probably the days I should try to slow down and pull my kids in close! Funny how that is easier to see after the fact.
Engaging the family once seated
Grace or Moment of Silence
My kids go to a Waldorf School and a blessing is part of every lunch. These are not religious in nature – the children simply thank the earth for wonderful food and people to share it with. The blessings seem to change from class to class, even season to season, so my kids love sharing their version at our dinner table. When no one is eager to say grace we sometimes just sit quietly for a moment , which allows our bodies to quiet down before eating. My friend Nina talks about the health benefits of this practice — it actually helps you digest your food better!
Thorn and Rose
I hear many people say, even family dinner advocates, that conversation is something that happens when kids get older. As far as natural free flowing conversation goes, this may very well be true. But a few years ago we started something that I heard in a Kim Payne lecture, which he calls thorn and rose, and in our family we call a happiness sandwich. It goes something like this: Each person shares something that happened to them that day that made them really happy, followed by something that was sad or hard for them. Then we talk about something that might worry us about tomorrow, and something that we are so excited about and looking forward to! In this model we are acknowledging challenges but “sandwiching” them with joy. The happiness sandwiches of my four-year old are about a flower or a friend and a time she cried, whereas the seven- and nine-year olds sometimes reveal things that are important to know – like a hard moment with a friend, or a completed times table. I do it too, and find it to be a super relaxing conversation. It also activates our listening skills because my kids listen very intently to their siblings’ moments, and they learn more about each others’ activities and feelings, which strengthens their bonds.
Last spring I went to the Family Dinner Conference in New York. One of the speakers, Grace Freedman of Eat Dinner.org, cited a family dinner study which found that the number one ingredient for a “high quality” family dinner is laughter. I love that! I find at our own table, I sometimes try to quiet too much laughter as it tends to get in the way of eating. And though we know the food is important… laughter takes the edge off for everyone. I find that when everyone is having fun at the table they just eat the food on their plate: when it gets too serious, everyone tends to complain! My kids really enjoy telling me jokes, and they love hearing stories about their past when they did silly things.