How after years of telling my clients to do it, I finally made Family Mealtimes happen at my house
In almost every feeding course I have attended, even ones that have entirely different approaches, one thing is consistently encouraged. Family Mealtimes. Or as Dietitian Dr. Kyla puts it, Same food, Same time.
Sitting down and sharing a meal with our children is a powerful way to encourage them to have good mealtime behaviours, eat a wider range of foods, and is also great from a family connectedness and emotional wellbeing standpoint. I could write a whole other post on this, but you can read some great ones by searching the blogs of Let's Eat Speech, Dr Kyla and My Little Eater (among others).
So why wasn’t I doing it at my house?
Well, to be honest, it seemed really hard! With three small children (one of which is quite selective on what they will eat), me running my own business and working the hours that go with that, and a hubby who works the crazy hours of a company that spans every time zone – It just seemed too hard. And you know what else? I liked being able to sit down (on the couch, in front of the TV) at some late hour with my husband and a glass of wine at night and kick into “adult mode”. It feels like I earnt that peaceful meal. Did I really want to pass that up for stealing mouthfuls of chicken nuggets between telling my kids to get back in their seats, wiping bottoms, cleaning up spills, and tracking down “the other blue spoon”? Nup!
But after COVID gave me the chance to see how much that extra time of being “present” has benefited my kids and getting royally fed up with cooking two meals every night, we made the switch. Spoiler alert – It’s actually awesome, and we won’t be going back.
Here’s how we made it happen
Firstly, some background: We have NEVER routinely eaten as a family since having kids. I can see my clients now raising eyebrows at this point of hypocrisy. When my son was 20 months old, we had twins. To be honest, the fact that he got fed at all was the success here. We did what lots of parents treading water do – we gave him a high rotation of his favourite foods (nuggets, meatballs, plain pasta, peas, tomatoes, etc.) every night. Often in front of the TV. Sometimes at a table, while we busied around him cleaning, prepping, breastfeeding, etc. Unsurprisingly, it was NOT well-received 18 months later as we began emerging from twin fog when we tried to introduce a wider range of foods in a more structured format.
So we didn’t. As the twins settled into a consistent solids routine, we served up “kid-friendly” meals at 6 pm for them, and when we finished work and bedtime routines, we had out adult meals.
The reasons this stayed put for as long as it did are obvious
- Fewer dinner fights when only offering familiar foods
- The ability for us as parents to hand off mealtimes if needed so that one of us could work/shop/gym (who am I kidding).
- “Kids” dinners are traditionally quick and easy to cook, which is great when you are rushing home from daycare and herding towards the bath.
- Peaceful, grown-up mealtimes for us
But we did it anyway – Here’s how
Unsurprisingly, It’s mostly about organisation
- On Saturday evening (party!), I set the “menu” for the week (Sunday – Thursday). I write out all the groceries that I’ll need and try to do a click and collect order for Sunday morning. Leisurely grocery shops are a pre-kids-Kim luxury.
- For nights that are a particular rush, I plan slow cooker meals, so I know they will be ready when I walk in the door.
- I plan for leftovers (e.g., the meat from Sunday slow-cooker roast is also the meat in the tacos on Tuesday)
- I repeat some meals every week/fortnight (E.g., Sunday Roast, Taco Tuesday, Friday is takeaway pizza night). Slow-cooked meatballs on high rotation. Repetition takes some of the decision making (i.e., mental load) out of the job.
- I utilise some convenience items (e.g., frozen mash and frozen broccoli)
- On Sunday, I pick up the groceries and group them into the meals on the dining table. I pre-chop, brown, etc. and stick them in large Sistema containers labelled with the day of the week. For slow cooker meals, I basically get it to the point that I can dump it in the slow cooker on low before I walk out the door in the morning. For meals like tacos, I pre-cook the meat and get the salad parts prepped.
- For meals that I know will get some raised eyebrows from Mr. Food Skeptic, I consider how I can serve it in a deconstructed way (see blogs by above people on this) and with an absolute favourite side (e.g., garlic bread or potato pommes)
- I only follow two rules for meal planning:
a) The 3 L’s (A food I Love, A food I Like, A food I’m Learning about). So for every child, there is a “safe” food on the table.
b) I OFFER a protein, starch, and fresh food at every meal.
That’s as far as it goes. Even if it’s not eaten, these are the rules I go by for what I offer.
- We set the scene: We dim the lights, turn on battery-operated candles, get out the glass cups and sometimes even use a table cloth.
- We mostly follow Family Style Serving (where you put all the food in the middle, and everyone serves up a bit on their plate from the main pots) with a little combination depending on the meal. Let’s Eat Speech has a helpful blog post on this HERE. My Little Eater has a great one on family-style HERE.
- I try to get the kids involved in prep (getting out plates, putting the frozen food in the containers, etc.) and pack away (e.g., scraping their plate. The SOS Feeding Approach has great reasoning behind this)
Here are the things we’ve gained from the switch:
- Significant savings in our grocery bill
- Less time spent overall in food preparation
- The children LOVE it. They look forward to our meals together, and I can visibly see the difference in their mealtime “behaviour.”
- The kids are tolerating and/or trying a more extensive range of foods than ever before
- There are more opportunities to get the kids practicing helping and independence skills like setting the table, food prep, clean up, etc.
- We are allocating this time to talk about the day and be “present”.
- Connecting over dinner rather than seeing it as one of the chores in the evening routine has changed the tone of the rest of the evening routine (until it actually gets to the SLEEP part…. No magic fix there, unfortunately).
- The grown-up time starts earlier because it's not eaten up by ducking out for dinner or cooking.
- We are eating earlier, which generally seems to be accepted as better for health and digestion than eating a large meal right before bed.
Safe to say, it was a switch well worth making.