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Back to the Dinner Table

Sandra Phillips is a Family, Home and Efficiency specialist with Live-Right.com

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Do you feel like you've lost your family dinner hour? Fast food, busy schedules, careers, and emphasis on extracurricular activities all make it nearly impossible to get everyone together for a pleasant evening meal.

We all want closeness in our family relationships, but some of us have difficulty creating that environment at dinnertime. Eating is a necessary biological function, but it's also an important social function that we do with loved ones. The following are some things parents can do to make dinners a time when the family wants to come to the table.

1. Prepare the Physical Environment
Turn off the TV. More than half of families have TV on during dinner.
Ban interrupters: I-pods, cell phones, newspapers, magazine (so family can focus on each other)
Get bills, mail, etc. off table, along with any games, toys, or other potential distractions.
Turn off telephone answering machines
Face each other when eating: avoid snack bar dinners. For example, my son Roo wanted dining room setting as opposed to buffet dinners on recent cruise
Have soft music playing
Light a candle - it's hypnotic for the anxious toddler (afterward, let him blow it out)
Close door to rest of house if needed. Create physical boundary

2. Involve the Family ahead of time
Pick a set mealtime but don't be rigid about it.
Ring a dinner bell 5 minutes before dinner is ready to start
Don't start until everyone is there. "Here we sit like frogs on a Lilly pad" is what we sang until the last kid showed up for dinner.
Begin with a prayer or statement of appreciation for what has been prepared.
Let each person choose a favorite dish or meal, at least once each week.
Involve the family in the shopping and food preparation and table setting

3. Expand our comfort zones
Let the kids invite a favorite friend over once a week (promotes better behavior in the child; allows parents to evaluate and encourage good friendships)
Once a week serve an ethnic or international meal or dish. Talk about the country and its people
Insist that family members try each new food or recipe. Don't require that they eat it all, however Make it mandatory that there be no negative comments about the cook, or the dish (i.e. "This is gross!") They can simply say, "I didn't care for it. Thank you." Shows respect.

4. Make it Fun & memorable
Take advantage of the holidays, birthdays, and every possible celebration. For example, make everything green for St. Pat's day, rotate table centerpieces, use balloons, make signs, etc.
Develop your own rituals. For example "tacos on Sunday night" or "roasts every Monday"
Don't be predictable: pick up plates and move outside; or go on a picnic; or eat backwards one night (right to left handedness; start with dessert).

5. Engage the Family during dinner
Talk about fun things; keep it light; do planning for holidays, birthdays, vacations
One person should guide the discussion, and set a positive tone
Ask each person to mention at least one exciting thing that happened to them today.

Here are also some tips on teaching your children what needs to be taught without being too strict:

First of all we teach by example (such as mannersâ"”in segment yesterday)
Have an ending time to the meal. "May I be excused?"
Avoid the LAP routine at dinner: Lecture, Argue, Pry (so they don't feel dinner is an interrogation session).
Meal time is not a time to complain or discipline children; in fact, parents should save their own disagreements for later so kids aren't feeling the trauma and drama.

The Rewards?
Small enhancements or changes can have big benefits. Don't make a big deal of it, just implement them one by one.
Women are generally the ones who bear the most responsibility for ritualization so they may have to initiate.
As family learns to focus on family, dinnertime will again become special.

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You can find more great tips and information on family togetherness at www.Live-Right.com

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