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Expert Dinner Advice

Family Dinner Preparation Dr. William Doherty
Often it's the little things that add up to good family dinnertimes or not so good ones.

It is hard to have good family dinners over the years when one family member gets burned out by doing everything, or when the dinnertime environment is not conducive to conversation. Here are some questions to ask yourself, and some tips on family dinner preparation.

* Who does the meal planning? Unless one family member loves doing all the planning and shopping, it is best to have involvement of other family members. A good rule of thumb for family rituals is that the more people involved in planning it, the better the ritual is likely to be.

* Who prepares the meal and sets the table? Same idea as for planning. The sense of sole burden to please diverse family tastes can undermine the cook’s enthusiasm for the dinner ritual. Some families share the meal preparation among the adults and involve the children actively as they become older. Even quite young children can help set the table. Many people have warm childhood memories of working side by side with their mother preparing family dinners.

* Is the environment conducive to connection and conversation? This is where creating a separate ritual space comes in. Even if you don’t have a separate dining room, you can create ritual space in the kitchen by using candles and music. A dimmer switch for the lighting costs only a few dollars. The television should be off if family connection is the goal. Taking newspapers and bills and lunch boxes off the table helps as well.

* When is family dinner held? Predictability enhances the likelihood of a smooth transition to dinnertime. This does not necessarily mean the same time every night, if schedules don’t permit this. But it means predictability – knowing in advance each day when you will be eating that evening. One of the main obstacles to family dinners is unpredictable work schedules, often on the part of the husband/father. Being intentional about family dinners means to be mindful of one’s work schedule. Generally people get home for high-priority family events; if family dinners are put in that category, adult members will get home most of the time. And it means getting control of children’s activity schedules. Keep in mind the research showing that regular family dinners do more for children than any other activity they engage in.

* How are family members called to dinner? Some families routinely start their dinners on a negative note when the parents have to call repeatedly to the children to come to dinner. The last call may come with a threat. Families with a fixed dinnertime avoid some of this problem, but even then the final call to eat must be made. One device that worked in my household was to ring a bell five minutes before dinner was to start. It avoided having to locate the children, calling loudly upstairs or in the lower level of the house, and then listening for their sometimes muffled response. Since we knew that everyone in the house could hear the bell, ringing it sufficed.

* Who is present? Everyone if possible. And even if someone is not, it is best to carry on with the regular family dinner instead of skipping it. Some families allow teens to excuse themselves from family meals if they are not hungry or in a bad mood. This is a serious mistake. It communicates to the teen that he or she has no obligations to the family. Better to have a pouting child present at the meal than an absent and aloof child. Similarly, if the family has young adult children living at home and on their own schedules, it is important to have an understanding that they will participate in some family dinners. Otherwise, they can feel like boarders and not like family.

* How are you seated? Families differ here. Some have regular seats “assigned” (though often no one can remember how the assignments were made), while others have free-form seating. I suspect that Intentional Families tend toward more structure in the seating. One such family with two school-age children has each child sitting next to and across from a parent so that the squabbling children are at maximum distance from each other, and each has a sense of equal access to parents.

* What kinds of food are served? One of the ways to signal a special dinner is to prepare a special meal. In my own family, my spaghetti dinner on Sunday nights has always been a special dinner, looked forward to during the day. Similarly, my wife’s Danish pancakes have been a special brunch meal.

* How much time do you allow for family dinners? We need time to connect at the dinner hour, especially in today’s hurry-up world. Rushing undermines the benefits of family dinners. There is no rule about how much time you should set aside for family dinner, but if you are frequently telling children to hurry up eating, you are probably not allowing enough time. If you have a scheduled activity starting an hour from the start of the dinner, you are probably going to have time pressure to sit, pass food, eat, talk, clean up and get to that event. Europeans know better than Americans how to take time for their meals; we can learn from them.

* Are distractions and interruptions permitted? We will keep beating this drum: television, cell phones, Game Boys, newspapers, books – all of these send the signal that the family dinner is a separate eating event, not a family ritual.

* How do you handle table manners and food preference issues with children? These are thorny issues for parents. A certain amount of instruction about eating etiquette and adequate food intake is a necessary part of family meals. But they are best kept to the necessary minimum and done with firmness and not with anger. It is important that both parents agree on the standards and participate in these conversations. And then instruct children in a positive way (“Here’s how to drink from your cup” rather than “Stop slurping!”).

* Is the end of dinner clearly marked? If family members leave the table on their own, the meal ritual degenerates rather than ends. The adults, rather than the children, should signal the end of a meal. If the children are finished and the adults are lingering, the children can ask to be excused.

These ideas are adapted from The Intentional Family by William J. Doherty (Avon Books, 1999)