Eating together matters! The ritual of sharing food is a powerful, especially when there's a 'breaking bread' component, sharing something communal like a bowl of popcorn, veggies and dip, or a plate of cookies.
But dinner can become a battlefield. We struggle over controlling our children's eating habits or manners, and can sometimes forget to enjoy the food and each other. As parents, it's up to us to set the tone for dinner as a connecting experience by getting into the habit of being with our kids in pleasant, non-critical, accepting ways at the dinner table
If meals haven't been so fun in your family, here are a few to consider:
Assemble-your-own meals like tacos, 'roll your own' sushi, baked potato or salad bar, or rice bowls offer a chance for each person to create their own customized food while sharing a table and ingredients. These are often kind of labor-intensive to set up and clean up, but they are worth it. They take longer to eat than simpler meals, bringing us together to share and talk. Everyone can find something they like, and people may get excited about sharing their innovations and trying new things. Don't worry about how they combine the foods, just put some good wholesome stuff on the table and let them do their thing. If you can, get curious about their ideas and let them inspire you to try something new!
Pizza is a staple of family life. Rather than ordering pizza, try an occasional tradition of making it yourself. It can be ridiculously simple with Mark Bittman's crust recipe or you can buy dough or even pre-made crusts, homemade or store-bough sauce, and a spread of possible toppings. Don't be surprised if your kids raid the pantry for things you would never have considered topping a pizza with! One of my sons experimented with salsas and cilantro (which wasn't bad) and walnuts (which turned out to be amazing). You can set up a space in the kitchen where everyone makes their own. Rather than make individual pizzas, I like to make each crust big enough to share so that everyone gets a chance to taste each person's creation. Even if the kids only eat their own, you get the chance to try and appreciate their creations. Find something positive to say about everything they make, and you'll find them looking forward to new ideas for the next family pizza night.
Hors d'oeuvres night can be another fun one! Forget a sit-down dinner and eat 'cocktail party style.' We did this when I just couldn't face the restlessness my guys had a the dinner table when they were little. I would soemtimes make plates of finger foods--something like hummus and tapenade and a spinach/yogurt dip with cut up veggies and pita. We would put away toys and other things, turn on music, and have a dinner party together. It can be fun to really play, walking around and making 'small talk' together. Just like at a real cocktail party, the conversation may sparkle and it may not, no pressure. The important thing is to bring some fun into the process.
Food can draw us together, creating space for connection. If you try these ideas, bring a sense of lightness and play. We don't need to control what our children eat, we need to offer healthy, nutritious, and pleasant eating experiences and trust them to find their way.
As a mom (to 2 teenage sons), wife, and person in the world, I have been on a long imperfect journey. I have made many mistakes, but with mindfulness, emotional reflection, and lots of support I have learned enormously from those mistakes.