47. Screen-Free Meals. Or How to Build Real Face2Face Relationships at Home.

Posts 47 and 48 will consider some rules you can create and adhere to for a flourishing family meal time.  Because the table is an important training ground, children and adults both need to understand that certain table behaviors and attitudes are expected at every meal. The shared food is really only a small part of the power of the table. It is more important than you might realize that your family table be a place of nurturing, acceptance, and predictability.

At a family meeting, make a list of table rules. Your rules should stipulate that family, as a unit, always comes first. Perhaps some useful rules might include: (you will need to determine the consequences should a rule be violated)

  • All meals take place around a shared table set aside specifically for that purpose on set days at set times. While flexibility is a hallmark of good hospitality, the more consistent you can be in this area, the happier your family meals will be.
  • No one eats until all are served and thanks to God has been prayed.
  • Determine how grace is said, either corporately or by an individual; memorized grace said in unison is an important means for training children in the rhythm of gratefulness and family concord, while a free-flowing prayer by one individual allows for the influence of the Holy Spirit and for practicing the skill of “public” prayer.
  • Everyone eats the same foods. After teaching college nutrition for fifteen years, I cannot stress strongly enough the importance of not giving in to the power struggles food can cause between parents and children. I have shared meals with a host of adult students who still remove the crust from a piece of bread, who won’t touch a vegetable, and think cereal is an adequate substitute for a meal. A child’s taste buds do take time to mature, and some foods which are delicious to you are bitter, or have a ‘yucky’ texture to your child. You must learn to acknowledge that although they won’t like some foods, they still need to try each food presented. As taste buds mature, more and more foods become acceptable, and multiple attempts to “try it, you’ll like it” have been proven to create palatability over time. It is unrealistic, counterproductive, and servile to prepare separate food items for a family meal based on what each individual member likes and will eat. This is exhausting, and does not adequately prepare a child to view God’s great variety of foods with joyful expectation, respect, or thankfulness. Food aversion is natural, but yielding on a consistent basis to a picky eater can hamstring a child for a lifetime. Obviously, a child with a food allergy or food intolerance is a far different matter. If you have one family member with, say, a peanut allergy, it is important that peanut products are kept out of the home altogether, an adaptation each family member willingly makes out of love and concern for the affected individual.
  • Everyone must try at least one normal-sized bite of each food at the meal without theatrics or whining. If you serve something you know will meet with disapproval, a “one and done” rule can save a mountain of unpleasant confrontation.
  • Everyone is expected to help before and after the meal in age-appropriate ways. This can be an assigned service (don’t call it a chore) or a rotating one. ‘Everyone’ means all adults and children in the home.
  • No one leaves the table until everyone is finished- this is family time. Allowing children, especially, to leave the table early fractures the family dynamic, and means that an untended child is off doing his/her own thing with no adult supervision. Young children do have trouble sitting still over long, protracted meals. But, they should learn to sit through and participate in a normal family meal. They must also understand that once they do leave the table, they are officially done eating. A child who wanders away after a few bites, then returns to the table only to leave again is disruptive. You will have a hungry child on your hands by 8:00 p.m., but you need to stand firm. The table is where we eat, and meal time is when we eat. Period.
  • No electronics during dinner. This rule applies to all family members. Do not allow cell phones or other personal communication devices, computers, or headphones at the table. Do not answer a ringing phone. Do not eat on trays in front of the television.[1]

We will continue looking at some more rules in post 48.

~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

[1] My husband and I were seated recently next to a large, three-generation family at a nice restaurant. To our amazement, the father pulled out a laptop device and started a loud, intrusive (to us) movie for the children at one end of the table so the parents and grandparents could ‘enjoy’ conversation at the other. This is no way to build intergenerational relationships or significant family ties, and it is rude to other diners in a restaurant.

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