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Family Meals: How to Manage the Chaos and Have Restaurant-Ready Kids!

You know family meals are important, so you've made it a priority; you're home-cooking meals when you can, supplementing with rotisserie chicken, frozen pizza, etc. Sure, you're eating out from time to time, but you're resisting the urge to do the fast food thing as much as possible. You're going to the trouble of setting a nice table, and are really hoping this will be meaningful.

When it's time for supper, you call cheerfully, "Dinner's ready!" Nobody comes, so you yell and nag; you finally get everyone to the table and say the blessing. Then things start to deteriorate.

The kids play with their food, talk over each other, dominate the conversation, sing, wiggle/stand/wander around instead of sitting and eating; half the food ends up on the floor, it's a rare meal when somebody doesn't tip over their drink, and by the end of the meal you wonder how much food has actually made it to their little bellies! Sometimes you don't even care; in fact, sometimes you wonder what the big deal is--are family meals really worth it?

Here's a quick reminder of why they really are:

  • All members of the family are together at the same time, same place, doing the same thing, and facing towards each other rather than a screen/playing field/stage. At the table, families hear the same stories, laugh at the same jokes, and share each others trials and triumphs--they bond.

  • The dinner table is a great place for kids to learn things like table manners and how to engage in conversation, and to get caught up on the day's events.

  • And of course, the dinner table is the ideal time and place for instilling in children the faith, convictions, and values you're trying to establish in your home.

There really is no better opportunity for all of these things, which is why I want to help you get past the hassles that go along with family mealtime, and if you already have the habit, to manage some of the chaos.

  1. First, make an announcement--gather everyone together and announce that Mom and Dad have decided you're all going to eat together every . . . however often you decide.

  2. Decide how you will call folks to the table--a whistle, a bell, or just calling out-- and demonstrate it to the kids. Explain that when they hear that sound, it means they must 1) Stop what they are doing, 2) Wash their hands, and 3) Come to the table.

  3. Do a practice run! Send the kids to another room, then use your method of choice to call them to dinner. Time them to see how quickly they can get to the table with clean hands--make it fun! Then make it a habit by following the same routine every time you have family dinner. It's sometimes helpful to give a five or ten minute warning first--"Dinner will be in ten minutes" so that they're ready to respond appropriately to your signal.

  4. Once everyone is seated, teach them to bow heads and fold hands in gratitude to God; parents should lead in this, but include kids later by encouraging them to think of what they're grateful for and asking them to lead the prayer. Just remember that the point is to encourage reverent gratitude--redirect for silliness, etc. as needed.

  5. Teach children to eat first and talk later; tell them that you (parents) will be having a conversation and that they are welcome to listen to it. Ask them questions to include them, and help them learn to stop chewing before talking. They're going to blurt things out, speak out of turn, and talk way too loudly; be patient, but gently correct.

  6. Start to teach table manners--correct them when they chew or speak with their mouth full, play with food, or interrupt conversation.

  7. Help kids learn to remain seated by immediately re-seating them, gently but firmly, then say "we sit while we eat." If they continue to leave their seat, say "If you are finished, you may brush your teeth and get ready for bed. If not, please remain seated." If it happens again, remove their plate and say "I can see that you are finished. Go brush your teeth and put on your jammies." NOTE: When they insist "I didn't mean it! I'll sit down now!" stick to your guns! DO NOT GIVE IN! Very calmly FOLLOW THROUGH. If you give them "another chance" you'll be doing it at every meal; if you send them on to bed, it probably won't happen again.

Family meals are absolutely worth the hassle. They really and truly are bonding opportunities, if you treat them seriously and don't just rush through them. The thing to keep in mind is that they are a long series of constant, consistent, gentle reminding and correcting: "Please close your mouth when you eat. Use your fork, not your fingers. Excuse me Sally, please wait until Joey is finished speaking, then it's your turn. Penny, please ask someone to pass you the salt instead of reaching across the table. Sam, do we stand or sit at the table? Are you finished? If so, you can go ahead and get ready for bed. No? Okay, then where should you be? That's better!"

This is how it's supposed to be. It's a learning process, and they won't learn these things at the fast food drive-through window. If, however, you make this a priority and commit to it, you'll be able to take your kids to restaurants, and have people marvel at their behavior! That's the way it was for my family--five kids, well-behaved in restaurants--I'm not kidding!

If you need more help, please call me! We can have a chat, or you can grab some friends and set up an online class! But whatever you do, give it a shot!

I'll see you in a restaurant soon!

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