Recently my oldest daughter started her senior year of high school. While we prepare and look forward to launching her into an exciting future next year, we also find ourselves feeling a bit sad and nostalgic as we experience a lot of “lasts” with her this year (e.g., her last first day of school, her last Homecoming, etc.). For the past 17 years of her life, I have also been learning how to feed my family. I know that more learning awaits me as my family develops and grows and we move through different phases of life. I look forward to discovering new experiences of family dinner as life unfolds. But now is a time to reflect back – on this past year of Blog for Family Dinner as well as some of the highlights of what I’ve learned personally over the years about feeding my family.
1. Family dinner doesn’t have to be perfect to be successful.
The pressure to be perfect can come in a number of ways: perfect attendance with all family members present; perfect food as in organic, home-cooked, delicious, filled with nutrient-rich super foods, etc.; and perfect frequency with the family eating together as close to 7 nights per week as possible. There are definitely meals in my house where everyone is present, and everyone enjoys the deliciously healthy meal I’ve prepared. However, there are definitely meals where that doesn’t happen in my house. We don’t always have 100% attendance. Sometimes we get take-out, and I don’t always buy organic. I’ve learned that “good enough” really can be good enough.
2. You can correct past feeding mistakes.
When my oldest was a young child, I made my fair share of the typical feeding mistakes. I catered to her preferences. I gave up offering new foods too soon after she had rejected them. I sometimes fed her at a separate time from my husband and me. Needless to say, she was a “picky eater.” Over time, however, she has grown into a mature teenager with relatively little fear of trying new foods. I attribute her change in part due to physical maturity, but largely due to the division of responsibility. I’ve learned that taking the battle out of mealtimes is a key to growing healthy eaters.
3. Change is inevitable, but consistency is key.
The challenges of feeding a healthy family have changed markedly over time. During the toddler and preschool years, much of the focus was on “getting them to eat,” and my anxiety was centered on making decisions about what to offer my kids to eat that had a chance of actually being eaten and maybe even enjoyed. During the school age years, I have worried much less about what my kids will eat, but more about arranging schedules and dinner times so that we can all eat together. I have learned that consistently making the effort to plan meals with regard to both menu and timing has made a difference.
4. Family dinner is not the only way to connect, but it provides a vital touchpoint for my family.
Sometimes we have great discussions at the dinner table, but sometimes we don’t and the experience can be more of eating quickly and rushing on to the next thing. Some of my best discussions with my children have taken place at the dinner table, but some of them have taken place in the car during our many drives to and from various activities or in the house on one of their study breaks. Yet family dinner has been well established in our home. My kids look forward to it and know that it is there for them. It makes me smile when I receive a text asking, “What’s for dinner?” And I feel happy knowing that I can always give them an answer.
Kathleen Cuneo, Ph.D. is a psychologist, parent coach, and mom. Her mission is to help parents raise happy and healthy kids – without making themselves or their kids crazy! She provides education and support to parents through her websites www.dinnertogether.com, www.drcuneo.com, and www.kitchentableparents.com.