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Making Family Dinners Fun

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Eating dinner with the under-5 crowd is like going to the dentist: You know you should do it, but it's not likely to be pleasant. Take suppertime at my house. Jake, 5, and Sophie, 2, start whining around 5:30  -- they're hungry. I slice up an apple, turn on Dora, and frantically start preparing pasta in spicy red pepper sauce and salad (for the adults), macaroni and cheese (for Jake, who won't eat spaghetti), and meatballs in marinara sauce (for Sophie, who won't eat the red pepper sauce but still wants what we're having).

Minutes later: "We're still hungry!" I try to stall: "Dad will be home any minute." No dice. "We're hungry now." I relent and hand over peanut butter crackers. Finish making the salads. Ask the kids to put the napkins out. Pick the napkins up off the dining room floor. Ask the kids to wash their hands. Wipe the water off the bathroom floor.

Yay, 6:30  -- Dad's home! I get everyone seated, and my husband and I gamely try to engage the kids in conversation. "What did you guys do today?" asks Dad. Jake ignores the question: "I don't like ketchup on my macaroni." (Since when?) Sophie, echoing her brother: "I don't like sauce on my meatballs." Great. "Just eat your food," I command.

"We're not hungry!" they cry. "Then no dessert," I threaten. "How much do we have to eat to get dessert?" We negotiate: four bites. I watch them poke, prod, but not eat their food. Jake: "I don't want dessert. I'm done." Sophie: "Me, too."

Both are off and running. "You haven't been excused from the table!" shouts Dad. Do we really want them back?

Okay, we probably do. Studies suggest that children who eat meals with their parents can score huge benefits:

  • Kids overall consume more fruits and vegetables.
  • Toddlers have better vocabularies.
  • Girls are less likely to develop eating disorders.
  • School-age children get better grades, and teens are less likely to smoke, drink, or do drugs.

Beyond that, "Meals provide a backbone for family life," says Ellyn Satter, author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. They also offer children enormous security.

But how do you establish the sit-down habit when getting a balanced meal on the table (and getting your child to actually eat it) seems impossible most days? Easy ways to overcome the biggest obstacles to family mealtime:

Unrealistic expectations

We all know what supper is "supposed" to be: the entire family gathered agreeably around a wholesome, home-cooked meal. Unfortunately, reality rarely resembles the ideal. Children whine, spouses run late  -- and who has time to do more than heat and stir? "I want my children to have the wonderful meals I grew up with  -- I just want someone else to make them," jokes Linda Sill, a Glastonbury, Connecticut, pharmacist and mom of three.

Mealtime fix: Forget the ideal
"In today's hectic world, you aren't going to re-create the suppers of your childhood, but that doesn't mean you can't eat together," says Miriam Weinstein, author of The Surprising Power of Family Meals: How Eating Together Makes Us Smarter, Stronger, Healthier, and Happier. Some nights, dinner may be quick and nutritionally suspect, but even the most slapdash supper is better than none. You can eat at a fast food joint  -- what's important is that children have reliable access to a parent. Consider it a triumph if your toddler sits through grace and your preschooler realizes spaghetti is not a finger food.

Marguerite Lamb says dinner has become her favorite time of day (really!). She also writes for Redbook and Fitness.

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