A version of this article also appears on Dr. Anne Fishel’s Food for Thought blog.
Who doesn’t love the idea of dinner as a time to kick back, relax and enjoy the company of your beloved family?
Yet, despite this wish, tension can often challenge the peaceful dinner hour. For example, after rushing home from work to make a meal before the kids melt down in hunger, the chef may arrive at the table harried and annoyed (even just figuring out a meal that everyone wants can be stressful!). And once everyone plunks down at the table, fights, hurt feelings, irritating interruptions, stony silence, and children popping up and down can make it hard to relax.
That said, here are some tips to banish tension from your family dinners:
- With all family members present, prepare a list of meals that everyone will eat without complaint. This helps the cook prepare dinners that no one will reject. For an easy, go-to list of foods, check out the MyPlate list.
- Talk about what you’re having beforehand: Especially when kids are younger, talking about what you’re going to be eating before dinner cuts down on complaining when the meal is served. If you know a child won’t be thrilled by a particular dish, try saying, “I know you don’t love butternut squash, but try to manage a few bites. We can make those green beans you love tomorrow.”
- Focus on “the-good-enough-dinner.” When it comes to manners, eating everything on one’s plate, or staying seated for a long time, do not require perfection from yourself or other family members. A fun time shared by all is the goal, not perfection.
- Avoid topics that always result in a fight. Chances are, it will be easier to discuss issues like grades, curfew and behavior problems after dinner, once you’ve had time to connect. See our tip sheet on “challenging conversations” for more ideas on this.
- Go easy on teaching manners at the table. It’s hard to relax when you’re being corrected constantly. If this is a sore spot for your family, check out our “Ask The Family Dinner Project” post about playing at the table.
- Set ground rules. If you are blessed with a family where everyone wants to talk, you may want to suggest that only one person speak at a time, and that family members need to be seated when speaking. (A family I know has a rule that people can talk only if they are holding a shell or a salt shaker. When a person is done speaking, the object is passed to the next speaker.)
- Play music at dinner, perhaps with each family member taking a turn at choosing the selection. Music can trigger a relaxation response and create a special mood. Restaurants use music to create a relaxing atmosphere, and so can you.
- Take a minute to feel gratitude. At the end of a long day, it’s easy to focus on stressors and to-do lists. Take a step back and think about the positives. Maybe say thanks to whoever cooked or set the table. Let dinner time be a time for gratitude and appreciation.
- Address dinner problems directly. If there is an aspect of dinner that’s really bugging you, you might say, “I really love our dinners, but there is one thing that would make them even better. Could we think of some new approaches?”
- Remember that the best antidotes to tension are laughter and feeling listened to. Look for openings to laugh and listen more.
- Cook foods that are known for reducing stress. These include berries, dark green vegetables (spinach, kale, broccoli), oranges, sweet potatoes, nuts and avocados. Of course, any food that everyone likes to eat will also increase enjoyment, and therefore lower stress levels.
When my kids were young, I would often go to the effort to cook a nutritious meal only to watch as the meal was over in five minutes flat, which I found stressful. I wanted to prolong dinnertime for as long as I could before my children grew so restless that food started flying. So, my husband came up with the idea of giving them fruit pops, which we made out of orange juice. Having the kids slurp ice pops allowed us to extend dinnertime for another few minutes, and started our family on a path to longer periods of time sitting at the table, chatting about our days. – Dr. Anne Fishel