8 Ways to Use Family Mealtime to Build Relationships

Take a moment and reflect on the conversation around your dinner table. When Rachel thought about it, she realized that the interaction was rather negative with a continual focus on manners and diet issues. “But what am I supposed to do when they’re being silly or are just eating chips and nothing else?”

What children eat is important. A balanced diet is foundational for healthy growth and development. Unfortunately, too much focus on diet can contribute to anxiety surrounding eating and food choices. A careful balance is important.

In most of life, eating is a social event. When people gather together, it’s usually around food. Why not start now to use mealtimes in your home to build relationships? Allow your meals to become a time to enjoy one another.

How to Make It Work Nutritionally:

  • Instead of nagging kids about their food choices, it’s often best to provide healthy meals and snacks and minimize unhealthy options. If you provide apple slices as a snack for your preschooler, then that’s his snack. If your son wants cookies instead, you simply say, “This is our snack today. If you don’t want to eat it, then lunch is coming in a bit.” The natural consequence of not eating is hunger, an excellent motivator. In fact, it’s amazing what kids will actually eat when they’re hungry.
  • Remember that kids eat more or less at different stages of growth. Furthermore, many children have a narrow range of foods that taste good to them. You don’t have to cook only what they like. Make a variety of foods, but allow children to opt out of eating what they don’t like. Provide healthy snacks between meals, and encourage children to choose from what’s available.
  • Parents who force kids to clean their plates often do their children a disservice. In Western culture we tend to have problems with obesity and food-related anxiety disorders. You don’t want to contribute to those problems by being hyper-vigilant with food. Offer children healthy options and allow them to choose the quantity.

How to Make It Work Relationally:

1. In many homes, dinnertime is the only time when the family actually gets together. This becomes more pronounced as children get older and schedules become more complicated. Resist the urge to take advantage of mealtime as a forum for discipline. While it may be necessary or helpful at times, be careful not to develop a negative pattern around the table. It’s been said that more meals are ruined at the dinner table than at the stove.

2. Coming to the table whether you’re hungry or not is important. When you call your child to come and eat and he says, “I’m not hungry,” you may be tempted to allow him to continue to play. But the reality is that mealtimes are a family experience. You want to spend time together and enjoy relationships.

3. Use mealtimes to share about the day. Talk about things you’ve learned, and ask the children to talk about their experiences. Children will learn valuable relationship skills such as listening, asking questions, talking, and telling stories. Gentle reminders about affirming others, not interrupting, or letting someone else speak teach children how to carry on conversations and enjoy others in the process.

4. Take time to plan the social component of the mealtime. Save stories from the day, jokes or riddles, and think of questions that get your kids talking. Some parents spend a lot of time preparing a meal but don’t prepare at all for the dialogue. That’s a mistake in many homes where the conversation deteriorates rather quickly and relational opportunities are missed.

5. Children learn from stories. As you share ways you’re growing or incidents that made an impression on your day, children apply them to their own lives. Laughing and being silly can add to a positive sense of family life. When appropriate, share how you have applied your faith and values in practical situations by the way you think or act. This helps children see that spirituality isn’t just a technique; it’s a lifestyle.

6. Some children make mealtimes a challenge. Hyperactive or overly talkative youngsters can make civilized conversations difficult. Sibling conflict issues spill over into what might otherwise be pleasant conversations. Try to gently move things back on track. Redirect conversation and distract children by your enthusiasm and energy.

7. Manners are important in order to relate well to others. Learning how to interrupt graciously, how to pass dishes to one another, and how to eat in a polite way are all important. Teach these lessons over time without emphasizing them at every single mealtime.

8. If a child needs discipline, separate that child from the table and tell him that he’s welcome to return when he can act appropriately at the meal. In the meantime, continue to enjoy conversation and relationship with the others who are there.

© 2013 iMOM. All Rights Reserved. Family First, All Pro Dad, iMOM, and Family Minute with Mark Merrill are registered trademarks.