Which of the following do you think is most important to child development?

A. school
B. playtime
C. the family dinner
D. story time

Catherine Snow, professor of education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, involving 65 families over an eight year period. She found that dinnertime was of more value to child development than playtime, school, and story time. We will drive across town two times a day, five days a week, to put our children in the best school. But are we willing to take the time to plan a family dinner each night?

“But It's Too Much Work”
The hour just before dinner is a great time to develop a bad attitude. Just ask my kids. Or me, for that matter. I don’t particularly enjoy the process of preparing meals.

If you have small children, you don’t have endless hours to look at recipe books and set just the perfect table every day — even if you do enjoy cooking. And even Miss Hospitality can get out of sorts when she feels like she is the only one doing all the work every day that goes into a family dinner: preparing the food, setting the table, filling drinks, clearing the table, wiping countertops and washing dishes. In order to commit to having regular family dinners we need to line up some help, keep it simple, be creative, and have some fun.

Assign kitchen patrol duty (KP) – Assign one child per day to be on duty. The person on KP…
  • sets the table, being creative if inspired (stuffed animal centerpieces are fine)
  • decides who sits where (unless the family enjoys the predictability of assigned seats)
  • delivers things needed during dinner (refills on drinks, salt and pepper, an extra utensil, or extra napkins)
  • receives an encouraging word and thanks from each family member. Clears the table afterwards
  • does not grumble or complain, knowing that grumbling is actually volunteering to be on KP for the next dinner!
Make it a Priority Something happens when we sit down facing each other (instead of the television) at the table and “break bread” together. Connection is made. And this practice sends a message to our children about the importance of time together, and the value of our relationships. Family dinners are difficult to keep up regularly, especially when children grow old enough to be involved in evening practices and activities. But it is a healthy goal to try and sit together at the dinner table at least four nights a week. If you can’t pull that off, you might need to take that as a sign of overcommitment and drop a few things.

Adjust Expectations and Keep it Simple
Lighten up and let go of some expectations. Make meals simple, and serve them with love. Your goal is time together. Lots of seemingly normal dinners add up to hours of accrued quality time together through the years.
  • Find out what simple meals your family likes: build-your-own sandwiches; raw vegetables, boiled eggs, cheese and crackers, and fruit.
  • Pick up a rotisserie chicken or some other prepared food on your way home from work or other activity. Who cooks the food is not what matters; taking the time to sit and eat together is what matters.
  • Keep paper plates and plastic cups on hand for when your schedule is tight.
Be Creative
If you get in late from work, if you or your husband work odd hours, if you are a single parent working a long shift, or if you have team practices to work around, extra creativity will be required to plan and pull off the family dinner. Depending on your circumstance, consider:
  • Provide an early nutritious snack for the children, then have a late dinner together.
  • Let the children eat dinner and bathe; then sit together later at the family dinner table to eat dessert.
  • Eat an early family dinner together, and then allow the children a healthy snack before bed.
  • Utilize the slow cooker to have meals ready when you arrive home. Focus family celebrations around dinner time
Use a “You are special today!” plate at dinner to honor a family member for a special occasion or accomplishment: birthday, graduation, outstanding grade, an act of honor or courage, dramatically exhibition of a positive character quality...even potty training success.

The possibilities are endless. Either purchase an official “You are special today!” plate or just use a plate that is different from your everyday plates and make it known to the family that this is the designated special plate. Make sure each member is getting the daily nutrition needed. The family dinner feeds body and spirit.

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