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Gather Around Our Table

For most parents, getting the family to the dinner table—and keeping them there—takes some creativity. Here are a few secrets to help your little ones (and bigger ones) stay put, eat something other than mac-n-cheese and even look forward to family meals together.

Cut yourself some slack. The goal is to keep your family mealtime a positive, happy experience. Think about lowering your expectations for what a “sit-down” meal with little ones and bigger ones means. Real life can be hectic—balancing work, soccer, piano lessons, play dates—and getting the whole family to the table at the same time can be so challenging that many families just give up. Most of us believe that family dinner is important—we simply lack the patience, energy or tools to pull it off. And then we feel guilty.

Why not make dinnertime fun instead of a chore? Include an unexpected ingredient such as purple carrots or star fruit, serve the kids’ juice in fancy glasses—or enjoy pancakes, eggs and OJ instead of your usual dinner fare. Have a picnic: pack up a basket, spread out a blanket on the living room floor, move a couple potted plants over and enjoy dinner in “the park.” Is your fridge full of leftovers? Dish them up, put out some soft taco shells and let your family enjoy making their own “wacky wrap” creations.

Make it a group effort and give everyone a responsibility. Your spouse could get the salad together while your daughter sets the table. Let your youngest supervise from his booster seat while your son takes the drink orders. Your 10-year-old can feed the baby while you get the rest of dinner on the table. This is the perfect opportunity to provide your children with a valuable sense of involvement. Ask your family for their own ideas and allow them to choose the side dishes for the week. Remember that while some of their requests may be a bit off the wall, they are (generally) doable.

Start a tradition of “Family Happy Hour.” Before you start preparing dinner, serve healthy appetizers such as chopped veggies with hummus or baked whole grain tortilla chips with mango salsa while listening to a fun playlist. These healthy options take the edge off their hunger, and you may find your children happier and more willing to try new foods when you do sit down together.

Dinner is not your only option. Sometimes the demands of real life can get in the way of this important commitment—so, we need to be flexible. Family mealtime is about connecting with your family—if dinner is impossible, why not connect over lunch or a snack? And, take advantage of some shortcut ideas. On the weekend, why not prepare a few meals in advance so that everything is ready to be heated when you get home from a long day at work? Learn to make some compromises—crock pots can be wonderful, and not every meal needs to be Coq au vin!

Family dinner is a good idea. “Mealtime is often the only time in the whole day when everybody’s in the same room having a conversation,” says William Doherty, Ph.D., author of The Intentional Family (Addison Wesley Longman, 1997), “so it’s where the family’s culture gets created.” Family dinner helps demonstrate to our children that they are important enough for us to spend this valuable time with. And we often hear experts say that consistent family mealtime improves nutrition, table manners, communication skills, family relationships and bonding.