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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.

Crazy schedules

Colorado Springs mom Dimity Davis has a 3-year-old and a 9-month-old who have to eat at 4:30 to be in bed by 7:00  -- too early for her husband, who gets off work at 6:00 and "patches something together on his own" several nights a week so she can squeeze in trips to the gym.Things only get more complicated with older kids involved in sports and other activities that can force families to eat late, in shifts, or in the minivan.

Mealtime fix: Divide and conquer
The benefits of family meals hold as long as one parent is at the table, says Lauren Duran, communications director for the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, where much of the research on eating together has been conducted. This is welcome news. It means I can feed the kids at 5:30, when they're hungry but not famished, winding down but not exhausted. If I sit with them and eat (even if it's something small, to tide me over until my husband comes home), we'll have shared a meal.

Reclaiming mealtime may require setting limits. Anne Moscony of Media, Pennsylvania, makes sure her four children play just one sport each and doesn't allow TV or computer games on school nights. Jennifer Bellwoar, of Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, only lets her three kids join activities that end by 6:30. Both moms manage family meals up to four nights a week. But if you can't do dinner every night, start with one night.

And who says it has to be dinner? Maybe breakfast or a snack would better suit your family's schedule. My husband and his siblings still fondly recall milk shakes with their dad on Saturday afternoons. "What you want," says Weinstein, "is low-key time that everyone can count on."

Picky eaters

Feeding a finicky kid can be frustrating enough to make a mom ditch family meals completely. "Amelia basically eats the cheese group these days  -- pizza, quesadillas, grilled cheese," says Davis. If there's something new on the table, "she'll declare 'I don't like it' even if she's never had it."

Mealtime fix: Don't push
Since your child ultimately controls what she swallows, this is one power struggle you won't win, says Jan Faull, a Seattle child development and behavior specialist. It's normal for toddlers and even preschoolers to be extremely cautious about trying new foods. They love familiarity  -- a big reason they often cling to a favorite blanket, book, or toy. So you may have to present a new food a dozen or more times before a child will taste it.

Satter advises parents to be "considerate but not to cater" to their children's tastes. Offer four or five items at every meal, including at least one your child likes, even if it's bread. This doesn't mean you have to cook four different items. If you're serving beef stew, for instance, put out some heat-and-serve biscuits, sliced peaches, and milk. Then let your child choose freely what goes on his plate.

Cajoling children to eat when they don't want to can keep them from learning how to manage their own food intake, Satter warns. By giving yours the autonomy to accept or refuse foods (without jumping up to offer an alternative), you'll help him develop healthy eating patterns  -- and put an end to the suppertime food fights.

Faull also cautions parents against openly referring to kids as picky or even adventurous eaters, since they may strive to live up to these labels. (This may partly explain why "fussy" Jake's favorite meal is a buttered roll, while "chowhound" Sophie loves lox and steamed clams.)

Restless diners

"Our kids are basically incapable of controlling their demeanor for more than ten minutes," says Evelyn Bavier, a West Hartford, Connecticut, lawyer and mom of two. Nevertheless, she requires both of her children to remain at meals until everyone is finished. "They have trouble doing it," she admits.

Mealtime fix: Know your child's limits
You can expect a toddler to sit and behave for about five minutes. A 3- or 4-year-old can typically stay put for 10 to 15 minutes, while a 5- or 6-year-old may remain peacefully seated for 15 to 20 minutes. If a child acts up, remove him from the table, Faull says. Let him play quietly on the floor nearby, or put him in his crib or room so everyone else can calmly finish their meal. If your child is over 18 months and still in his high chair, consider moving him to a booster seat at the table so he'll feel more included.

It helps if your child is hungry at mealtime, says Lisa Macan, a Yardley, Pennsylvania, mom of three. "I used to hand the kids a bag of Goldfish every time we got in the car. But they were eating so poorly and were so distracted at dinner that I stopped giving them snacks, except for a yogurt or fruit after their naps."

Finally, keep the young and the restless engaged by involving them in your banter. "Otherwise, they are not going to want to be there," Faull says. "Focus on them at first, since they aren't likely to sit for more than fifteen minutes anyway. After they're excused, you and your partner can talk on your own." (To get your kids chatting, try these conversation starters: "If you could have one superpower, which would you choose?" or "If you could invent one thing, what would it be?")

Lack of enthusiasm

Last week, I called my kids to dinner and Jake called back, "Dinner's boring!" After about seven minutes and two small bites of pizza, he asked to be excused so he could continue playing.

Mealtime fix: Have a little fun
Especially for a younger child, small touches mean all the difference. Serve milk in wineglasses, or light candles. Have a "backward night," with dessert first. Cook breakfast for dinner. Jill Kimball of Orlando makes one dinner weekly a family meeting, which her four children enjoy leading. On these nights, they each jot down a memory on a special place mat. "They've become our family's yearbooks," she says. (She's packaged her ideas as an activity kit, available at FamilyTableTime.com.)

The key to keeping your kids at the table (and having them come back) is to make it pleasant  -- this is not the time to grill them about sibling spats or forgotten chores. Says Moscony, "I really see meals as a time to nurture the body and the family."

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