Most parents understand, intellectually, that the kitchen table should be a happy place. But then reality hits: crazy schedules, complaining kids, and nutrition standards that seem impossible to meet. The truth is there is a lot that can get in a way of creating enjoyable family meals.
Why even try? We know frequent family meals are linked to improved health and well being of children. But making those meals enjoyable makes everything better: connection, nourishment, and food learning. Not to mention, the atmosphere at the table helps shape a child’s emerging relationship with food.
So I’m listing out what I believe parents who are successful at creating mealtimes don’t do most of the time.
1. They don’t focus on nutrition negatives
Parents who stress enjoyment don’t harp on the nutrition negatives — or the latest food trend — so ever-present in our food environment. That doesn’t mean they don’t manage foods with sugar or trips out to eat, but it’s not an all or nothing attitude.
Instead, they keep a big picture view of diet and focus on all the goodies they want to include. These goodies include everything from upping the plant-based foods to balancing it all out with yummy desserts. In short, they put thought into what is served and enjoyment is stressed above all. For kids, this sets the tone that good nutrition is a positive part of meals, not a negative.
2. They don’t try to control what they can’t
Parents who aim for enjoyable meals don’t attempt to control their child’s eating. There’s no you need to eat more veggies before dessert. Food is not used as a punishment or reward. Meals are put on the table and kids are allowed freedom within those choices.
But no parent is perfect, and the times parents do try to control kids they quickly realize how negative it turns the table. It reminds them why that it’s their job to get that meal on the table, and it’s the kids’ job to eat (see Satter’s Division of Responsibility).
3. They don’t stay inflexible about meals and cooking
There’s so much that goes on before the meal is served, from planning to shopping to cooking. Doing the same thing even when it’s clearly not working makes the whole process drudgery, which can’t help but contribute to the attitude at the table.
The family cook will be happier when she finds a way to get meals on the table that work for everyone. This might mean making changes from what worked before kids, or deciding it’s time to alter the current routine. Either way, flexibility is key when it comes to family cooking.
4. They don’t aim for perfection
The expectation that kids should eat perfectly and every family member needs to love every meal blocks joy from reaching the table. Parents who stress joy at the table understand that not everyone will be pleased with every meal and that kids’ eating is by nature unpredictable. If they don’t do this, most meals end up a big disappointment. Instead, they focus on connection and look for the small successes and changes that add up to bigger ones later.
5. They don’t go it alone
Having one person do all the cooking, shopping, dishes, and table setting often result in a crabby cook (I should know). It makes it that much harder to accept those meals that don’t turn out or to stay patient with little ones at the table.
Happy cooks learn to delegate duties, making it a win-win. Kids gradually learn cooking skills and the head cook feels a bit lighter and less resentful of the work that needs to be done.
Finding the source of the stress
Although every meal at my house is far from blissful, I do try pinpoint what needs fixing when mealtime feels like more of a slog. Are we connecting at mealtime? Am I trying to control the kids’ eating? Am I asking for enough help?
Are your family meals enjoyable? And if not, what do you think is getting in the way?
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