Six ways a family dinner can be ruined, and how to avoid that

Shared meals can help nourish relationships in the home, if you follow these six rules 

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 November, 2015, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 November, 2015, 9:00pm

We've all read, or at least heard about, the correlation between family dinners and improved physical and emotional health of our children, better grades and social skills, and avoidance or delay of risky behaviour.

But if your daughter flees the table in tears during an argument, or your son shuts down when he feels he's being criticised, or if you want to scream because your children (or spouse) reject a meal you prepared, the benefits of the shared meal can seem unattainable.

As a family dinner advocate and meal planning expert, I've made it my mission to help families eat dinner together more often by helping them remove the stress and obstacles around making it happen.

But what I've also observed is that it's not just about the food: there are interactions that can detract from the potential upsides of eating together.

When our oldest was a high school senior, we were eager to learn more about where he was thinking of applying to college and how his essays were coming along. Since we were all running in different directions during the day, my husband and I saw dinnertime as the perfect opportunity to inquire about his college applications. But Solomon is an independent guy and he wanted to manage the process his own way. Raising the issue at dinner proved to be a quick and reliable way to cut dinner short or stunt conversation.

The dining table is the obvious way to teach children table manners. But this can easily turn into non-stop nagging

Once we took that topic off the table, Solomon relaxed. Looking back over 18 years of family meals, I've examined what has separated the dinners where we felt really connected from the ones that made us all want to bolt from the table.

Through my work I have also spoken to many other families and have discovered that there are six ways to suck the joy right out of family meals.

Raising stressful topics or arguing Tempting as it may be to talk about your children's grades, study habits, or your custody schedule, dinner isn't the place to do it if you want your family to see the dining table as a place they want to spend time. "I do think children are entitled to have family dinnertime be a vacation from unpleasant or uncomfortable topics, free of nagging and critical attention," says Washington-based educational consultant Susan Jones.

Solution Save important topics for car rides or set aside 30 minutes each week for a family meeting to go over schedules and talk about difficult topics.

Focusing too much on manners It's a dilemma. The dining table is the obvious place to teach children table manners. But this can easily turn into non-stop nagging that makes your child feel criticised.

Solution Decide together on one table manner the family will focus on each week (adults too). Give a gentle reminder before the meal begins and direct positive statements to the family members that are doing well with chewing with their mouth closed, not interrupting, or using utensils rather than fingers.

Complaining about the food Negativity is a joy killer, especially when it's about the food we serve. When our children were little, I would get upset when they didn't like what I made or refused to try it, because I felt like my efforts were unappreciated.

Solution Teach your family to express gratitude even if the meal isn't what they would have chosen. After I expressed hurt feelings, our children came up with a new saying: "Mum, I know you worked hard on it, but it's not my favourite." Even though it was contrived, somehow it made me feel better and did teach them to be more considerate. Getting family members to be responsible for one dinner a week can also help them appreciate the effort that goes into making dinner.

Talking about what others are eating It's hard to resist asking children to have one more bite of broccoli. But I've come to believe that focusing on what or how much anyone else is eating is the dullest form of conversation, raises blood pressure, is ineffective or even counterproductive, and if done repeatedly, may lead to eating disorders.

Solution Model healthy eating yourself, and direct your cooking efforts towards foods you feel better about serving.

Using phones or electronic devices Sometimes it seems like the dinner table is the last bastion of our day that doesn't revolve around a screen. But when someone furtively texts, or pays more attention to their device than their dinner companions, the potential human connections are severed.

Solution Ban all devices from the table, except for rare cases (such as when a favourite team is finally in the championships, when looking up a nugget of information would enhance a discussion, or other agreed upon family exceptions). Cheater does the dishes.

Not coming to the table when dinner is ready (or leaving before others are finished) Whether you spend 15 minutes or an hour preparing it, it hurts when family members don't come to the table while the food is hot, or if they race off while others are still eating.

Solution Enlist family members' help in meal preparation and table setting so they appreciate the work that goes into making dinner happen, and explain why it's important to you that people gather while the meal is fresh. Give one five-minute dinner warning by voice or text. The person who is still late gets to clear the table.

When it's a place of calm rather than conflict, dinner can be the ideal time to learn social and conversational skills, such as listening to others and taking turns. Shared meals can also be one of the most natural settings to learn more about the details of each others' lives and share stories from our day or ponder life's questions, big or small.

One way to make dinner nourishing for the spirit as well as the body and ban the negativity is to find ways to express and experience gratitude before the meal, whether it's a moment of silence and a few deep breaths, prayer, or sharing something for which we each are thankful. After dinner we can extend the gratitude by thanking the "chef" and helping with the clean up.

When we focus on being grateful and considerate, and eliminate the joy-killers, we stand a much better chance of reaping the vast rewards of family dinner.

The Washington Post

Aviva Goldfarb is author of The Six O'Clock Scramble cookbooks