Making the Most of Dinnertime

Dinnertime provides some of the best teaching opportunities. Setting the table correctly, chewing with your mouth closed, and always passing the salt and pepper together are important things for kids (and adults!) to know. But, as a psychologist who works with lots of families and children, I think the lessons available to be learned at dinnertime can be much greater and more meaningful than simple, Emily Post-like etiquette.

Communication. When all is said and done, I’m not sure there are many more important skills in life than being able to communicate effectively with others. Speaking clearly and honestly, listening attentively, not interrupting, asking – and answering – questions in succinct, but interesting ways – these are some of the most important things in life. So why not use dinnertime as the ultimate communication training ground for your family? Some tips:

  • Everyone talks. Good manners dictate that everyone should have an opportunity to speak – not just the loudest, oldest, youngest, or funniest among us. Encourage each member of your family to share something about their day or a cool story they heard on the news.
  • Everyone listens. Sure dad’s tales from the office might be boring to the kids, but you know what? Listening attentively when someone is talking = good manners. While talking about age-appropriate things at the dinner table is important, avoid “dumbing down” all conversations for the sake of the kids. Learning to listen to other people’s stories in a polite way is an important lesson of childhood.

Responsibility. There is a lot of work that goes into preparing dinner, and it’s important that all family members know it. Earning money to buy the food, going to the grocery store, preparing the meal, cleaning up afterwords – meals are seriously time and energy consuming! Take this opportunity to instruct your kids about each family member’s responsibilities in the home. Some tips:

  • Review the process. Sometimes we as parents forget to include kids in the business of running a household. While they don’t need to know the intricacies of the budget, it is important that they know the relationship between work, money, and food. Food isn’t free, and meals don’t prepare themselves (even when they come from the drive-thru!). Talk to your kids about where their food comes from, how you decide what to buy at the store, and where you learned to make the dishes you prepare. They might be more interested than you think!
  • Give them a job. Everyone should have a job around mealtime. Whether it’s planning the meals, preparing the food, setting the table, or cleaning up afterwords, everyone can pitch in. Use this opportunity to help your kids learn about managing household tasks. Dinnertime is the perfect time to encourage your family to work as a team.

Relax. Life moves fast. So fast that many of us feel we need to be “plugged-in” all day long. How many hours (or minutes?) of the day do we really spend without some form of technology buzzing in the background? If you’re like me – not many. Yet we all know that taking time to relax, unwind, and unplug are important parts of maintaining health. So in addition to using dinnertime as a time to feed ourselves, teach positive communication and responsibility – why not use it as a technology-free zone too? Some tips:

  • Turn it off. I’m talking the TV, the computers, the radio, and yes, even your phones. Use the 15-30 minutes you spend at the dinner table to connect in a real, live, face-to-face way with your family. It might be a struggle at first, but I promise it will get easier with practice. And don’t forget: If you expect your kids to ignore the calls and the texts at the table – that means you need to, too!
  • Slow it down. Someone recently told me that in generations past, parents used to chat after dinner while sipping on coffee. I laughed out loud! There’s no way I would have time to do that – and certainly no way my kids would let me get away with it! But as I thought more, it occurred to me how nice it would be to linger over dinner, rather than shove down my food, then immediately move onto the next task. While it may not be realistic in this day and age to sip a latte until 9pm, perhaps we can remember to slow down, taste and appreciate our food, and – most importantly – take time to enjoy our loved ones around the table.

Not sure where to start in making the most of dinnertime with your family?  Try picking one of the above tips and giving it a try for a week – see if it makes a difference.  And ask your kids what they think – they will surely have some ideas of their own about how to make dinnertime memorable.

I wrote this blog post while participating in the SocialMoms and Kraft Homestyle Macaroni and Cheese blogging program, for a gift card worth $50. For more information on how you can participate, click here.

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