Family meal times are in my house a whirlwind. In my mind we are all going to sit down, enjoy a tasty, hot meal, with some lovely conversation and in relative calmness. The reality is very different. At the time of writing this I have a 6 year old girl, a 3 year old boy and an 8 month old baby. You can probably imagine how an average mealtime goes, but I will give you a snapshot in the hope it nomalises the chaos that may also be in your home.
Mummy manages to find time to cook up a nutritious dinner, that in itself is no mean feat. Cooking at actual teatime in our house is like navigating through a very choppy sea, on a pirate ship, with cannon balls being thrown at you. So when possible I try to cook straight after school or at lunchtime. I plan meals at least a day in advance otherwise my stress levels spiral upwards!
Mummy calls for someone to lay the table, usually meaning can my husband please come and do it. The reality is the 3 year old comes, upon prompting the 6 year old may join him. The table is quickly cleared by mummy (by cleared read – swept to one side or everything moved to the nearest worktop) and an assortment of cutlery is laid out. Certain people must have certain cutlery of course. Do not dare to give the 6 year old anything but a fork with a flower design on it!
Finally food gets to the table, some people sit down whilst it is hot, others straggle along later. Now comes the “How many times can we get mummy to get up from her seat” game.
- There are no drinks.
- The table was laid with only forks and no knifes.
- The boy wants a different coloured plate.
- The baby has no bib.
- Someone wants pepper.
- A spillage needs a cloth.
- The cat needs putting out as he is trying to steal the babies meal.
And so on…
The 6 year old refuses to sit with her legs round the front of her chair and sort of hangs off the side. The 3 year old refuses to eat with cutlery most of the time. Someone starts a song which leads to a both children singing different songs at increasing volumes until mummy shouts “No singing at the table”. The conversation darts all over the place from Daddy trying to pass on some business information, to what happened at school and what the boy’s dinosaur wants to do tomorrow. Throughout it all the baby sits there and cracks on with her meal, watching it all.
Towards the end of his meal, my boy tends to need some encouragement with eating his vegetables, along with some feeding. Then he will find a free adult lap to climb into. The 6 year old takes her time, leaving her favourite bit of dinner until the end. After a while the baby will want a cuddle and feed so mummy can end up feeding whilst eating her dinner. By the end of the meal there are content children, a food covered baby and a lot of clearing up to be done.
So, even if you are a dietitian, mealtimes can be a negotiation process and far from perfect. That is family life. Family mealtimes are such an important time in our house though. A place where the family is all together, a time for sharing news, for role modelling manners, healthy eating, portion sizes, taking it in turns speaking and a time for fun as well.
Here are my top tips for family mealtimes:
- Plan meals ahead of time. I do a rough plan for the week at the weekend but leave it flexible as life happens. My children get a bit of input into this, so I canvas opinions and try to cook things everyone likes.
- Set aside some food prep time. Chopping all the veggies in one hit for 3 meals can save you time on other days. I find it easier to chop a pile of carrots, butternut squash, peppers and pop them in a ziplock bag in the fridge to keep fresh.
- Getting the kids involved can feel like it takes more time and effort, but see it as a learning time for them. I have a boy who loves to help me cook and my girl is getting quite good at laying the table now. Find the jobs that they enjoy.
- Don’t expect perfect table manners. Do have some family rules. One of ours is “No phones at the table” (well you can take a quick instagram shot and that’s it).
- Role model healthy eating and portion control to your children, they will thank you for it later in life.
- Offer a range of different foods throughout the week. We sometimes talk about the food we are eating, where it came from, what it is made from and what it tastes like.
- Don’t force anyone to eat anything they don’t want to eat.
- You may have to eat super early in order to fit with the children but I still think it is important to do this and it leaves you time for fruit and yoghurt later on.
- Enjoy the time you have together. It is precious.
- Laugh in the face of chaos 😉