Barbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND
Do you want more frequent family meals? You can overcome the barriers!
Updated: Dec 2, 2022
Did you experience family meals growing up? Do you experience family meals today?
I have asked those questions to hundreds of audience members over the years and listened to countless stories of family meal experiences now and in the past. One that has stuck with me was told by a young woman who described growing up in a family that never came together for family meals.
Her family meal experience as a child occurred at her friend’s house. She marveled at how her friend’s family would gather around the dining room table at mealtime and enjoy eating and having lively conversations. She made a commitment to herself to have family meals when she grew up and had a family of her own.
Why didn’t her family of origin come together for family meals? It was likely due to one or more of several common barriers.
What barriers prevent families from eating together?
The most common barriers to family meals are:
Lack of time,
Fatigue – too tired after a long day
Lack of meal planning and cooking skills
Not wanting to deal with picky eaters, and
Fear of conflict at the table.
Many of these barriers are related to having unrealistic expectations of what it means to have a family meal. Overcoming these barriers is easier than one might think.
How to find the time and energy for meals
For starters, everyone eats. Therefore, simply assemble all people in a household who are ready to eat, even if eating different menus, and you have achieved a family meal. Begin there. Start a new habit of not eating alone if more than one family member is home.
Second, think about when family members are most often home at the same time and begin to plan to come together for meals during those days and times. It may be breakfast, lunch, or dinner, no one meal is better for family meals than another. If weekends are the only days that work, begin there.
The goal is to plan ahead to have family meals. Planning greatly enhances success in finding the time and energy. When family meals are planned for, accounting for family schedules, and food is on hand, achieving family meals is possible and not exhausting.
How to simplify meals
Family meals don’t need to be fancy or complicated. They don’t even have to be home-cooked. Eating together in a restaurant or bringing home carry-out, also count as family meals. Use convenience items your family likes. Cooking from scratch is wonderful but not required.
Get the whole family involved in shopping, cooking, and cleaning up. Building everyone’s food preparation skills benefits everyone and the accomplishment of getting a meal on the table that everyone enjoys is extremely satisfying. Start simple and over time learn new skills and experiment with more complicated recipes, if desired.
How to deal with choosy appetites
The dreaded “picky eater” can prevent parents from wanting to eat together with their children. Instead, parents become short-order cooks preparing a limited number of menu items and serving children separately.
This is a short-sighted approach. The goal is to help children learn to appreciate a variety of foods and make do with what is served. Include one or more “safe” foods with each meal and serve the entire family the same menu.
Observe what is referred to as a “division of responsibility” – where parents are responsible for what is served, as well as where and when. Children are responsible for how much is eaten. Maintain a neutral demeanor – no nagging, cajoling, bribing, or making comments about what is eaten or not eaten.
How to create a positive mealtime atmosphere
Make the family table a positive zone. No fighting or bickering. No negative comments about the food, or anyone or anything else. Follow my mother’s advice, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Learn more about having positive mealtime conversations.
Where do I begin?
Building positive habits begins with assessing where we are now and determining where we want to go. Think about why family meals are important to you. Select strategies to overcome the barriers that are getting in the way of achieving this goal for you. For more help, go to the promoting family meal page and download a copy of the Let’s Talk About Mealtime handout.
In honor of Family Meals Month, celebrated every September, we are focusing this month on what makes sharing meals with others something worth celebrating. We have explored what people value most about family meals, how family meals are enjoyed in various cultures around the world, and how to enhance conversation at meals. Next week’s post will provide an update on family meal research.
Looking for resources for promoting family meals? I’ve got you covered!
Read more about overcoming barriers in the post: Don’t complicate family meals.
“What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.” ~ Mother Teresa
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