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5 Ways How - and Why - We Can Make Family Meals Happen

I grew up in a big Italian family where family meals were a regular occurrence. When it came to starting my own family, I just assumed we'd approach meals with the same mentality. Of course we would all eat together!
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I grew up in a big Italian family where family meals were a regular occurrence. When it came to starting my own family, I just assumed we'd approach meals with the same mentality. Of course we would all eat together!

That was, until I had a toddler who eats dinner at 5:30 PM. Many times, my husband doesn't even make it home from work by the time our daughter is ready for dinner, making even the idea of family meals impossible right now.

I imagine the older our daughter gets, the easier it will be to sync up our dinner schedules, but in the meantime, we've been practicing a few tips that are helping us to squeeze in a small amount of family meals together per week - even with our "early bird special" little human. Turns out there are many benefits to eating together as a family at least a few times per week, so the sooner we can start, the better!

First, let's look at the benefits of family meals, taken from an article referenced in the USDA National Agricultural Library website (they are impressive!):

"Children from families who eat together on a regular basis are more likely to have family support, positive peer influences, and positive adult role models." (Fulkerson, Neumark-Sztainer & Story, 2006).

"Family meals provide an environment that encourages communication between the child and caregiver. Building strong family relationships and ties among family members allows children to trust and depend on their caregivers for support. Researchers have shown that family connectedness is associated with a lower chance of engaging in high-risk behaviors such as substance use and violence, and fewer psychological problems, including emotional distress in children." (Eisenberg, Olson, Neumark-Sztainer, Story & Bearinger, 2004; Fulkerson et al., 2006

And then there's this:

"Researchers also found that the frequency of family dinner increases characteristics such as having a positive view of one's future, being motivated and engaged in school, being committed to learning, and having positive values and positive identity (Fulkerson et al., 2006)...eating family meals is associated with improvement in the nutritional quality of the diet, as well as improvements in children's overall well-being."

Positivity, by the BOWLFUL. Here are some ways we can help serve it up to our family!

5 Ways We Can Make Family Meals Happen

  1. Keep it simple. First of all, this isn't a formal event; it's dinner in your home. Let's make it fun! Choose simple, colorful foods, and make sure to include at least one thing you know your baby will love. (Right now we are loving this idea.) Or better yet - plan ahead so you can serve leftovers, and you won't have to prep anything at all before you sit everyone down together.

  • Start off slow. If you are currently lacking in the family meal department (*raises hand with you*), don't bite off more than you can chew. Start with a goal of one family meal per week together, and then when it feels right, try for two, and increase as you see fit. The less pressure you put on yourself, the better your chances are of success. We find that, if you or your partner (or both) follow a traditional work schedule of a Monday - Friday grind, the best day to start incorporating a family meal is on Sunday. And you don't have to limit it to dinner, either; even a simple lunch or breakfast with your little one counts! So long as you eat together.
  • Let your baby be involved - or at least watch. While our daughter is still too small to help me start chopping away, what she can do is watch. I'll often sit her in her highchair and slide it over to where I am preparing dinner. When you do this, talk to your baby as you chop, and tell them what you're doing. If appropriate, after you chop a slice of food such as a piece of tomato, give it to your toddler so they can explore it! Another option is to give your baby a shatter-proof bowl and spoon, and let them play with that as you chop and prep.
  • Have your child help you with the set-up. It's also never too early to teach them how to help. Clear out a low drawer in the kitchen and make it just for them: plates, bibs, spoons, sippy cups. When it's time for dinner, direct your child to the drawer and ask them to help you by getting what is needed for their dinner time. Every morning, I ask our daughter to "go get mama a bib, and we'll have breakfast!" and she is so proud to run over to her little cabinet, fish out a bib, and hand it to me. It's the little things!
  • Be patient, and trust yourself as a parent. According to the Ellyn Satter Institute: "What works is good parenting with feeding: have regular family meals, serve the child the same food as the rest of the family, trust the child to eventually learn to eat those foods, maybe just not right now. Within a structured feeding environment, the child will do his jobs: eat as much as he needs and learn to eat the foods that parents enjoy. It takes time and patience, but, in the meantime, parents can enjoy family mealtime. (See more at: http://ellynsatterinstitute.org/fmf/fmf72.php#sthash.pgi0fauV.dpuf)
  • It doesn't matter how you do it, and every family is different, but hopefully these tips will get you to enjoy at least a few family meals amid the chaos of the work week. Every little bit helps!

    A version of this post appeared on What a Good Eater!, a baby and toddler cookbook and website with wholesome, family-friendly recipes designed to promote a well-rounded eater right from the get-go. Join the newsletter, here.