In my experience, having family dinners in unconventional ways can lend a sense of fun to the meal. For example, although my family eats together every night, our meals don’t always take place around a table. Sometimes we’re on the couch, with my 2-year-old son Blake in his baby chair. And other times, I put down a blanket and we have an indoor family picnic. This is a great way to create an “event” out of dinner, and helps make the meal feel special.
Another excellent strategy for getting small children invested in dinner is to include them in mealtime preparation. Blake has his own set of pots and pans, which he plays with as my husband and I make dinner. We also ask him to do simple tasks, like wash mushrooms. This usually makes him more interested in the final dish, which results in him sitting still for periods of time during dinner.
Even though Blake can be a bit of a picky eater, I try not to make mealtime a battleground. Instead of demanding that he try new foods, my husband and I simply say, “Mmm, this is delicious!” This encourages Blake to sample unfamiliar dishes, without pressuring him to do so. To get around his aversion to leafy green veggies, I’ve also been known to sneak puréed spinach into his meals.
Since my husband and I both have jobs, planning and shopping for dinner can occasionally feel overwhelming. To help reduce this stress, I use a weekly meal-planning service called The Fresh 20. For $5 a month, the service sends me recipes and a shopping list. They try to keep each meal under $15, and most (if not all) of their ingredients are available at my local supermarket.
I like this service because it places an emphasis on seasonal ingredients. My family is big on vegetables (Blake even likes sweet potatoes), and I try to include a lot of fresh produce in our meals. Of course, it’s harder to get fresh veggies in the wintertime, so I also use frozen ones during these colder months.
When it comes to dinnertime conversation, we always ask Blake about his day. A lot of the time, he’ll just say something like “Firetruck!”, but it’s important (and fun!) to let him contribute. My husband and I also to chat about our own days during dinner. We ate regular meals together even before Blake came along, and dinners have always been a great way to check-in with each other.
Looking back, I think I get my love for family dinners from my parents. When I was a young adult, our mealtime talks often led to long conversations about ethics and politics, which helped me think deeply about life’s challenges. Even now, when we all get together, we’ll usually spend three or four hours chatting over a meal. It’s a good thing that my parents bought comfy chairs for their new dining set, because we certainly spend a lot of time relaxing in them!
Although we occasionally disagree during our dinnertime conversations (as any family does), we mostly just laugh and tell stories over delicious food. Our family dinners are a break from our busy lives – a time when we can sit down without the distraction of phones or the radio, and spend some quality with the people we love. Fun, food, and conversation – that’s what it’s all about, right?
Allyson lives in Brattleboro, VT with her husband and son Blake.