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Enhancing the Family Dining Experience

by Dyan Eybergen

Mealtime for families should be a pleasant experience where members come together to share in themselves. Historically, food is a well-known catalyst for bringing people together - from its preparation to consumption - it should be a family affair. Unfortunately, most family dining experiences are wrought with children complaining about the meal, and parents arguing with them to just "eat one more bite!"

Parents need to concentrate less on how much or how little their children are eating, and focus more on what the experience of coming together to eat presents. This approach facilitates family unity and promotes food as something to enjoy and be grateful for.

  • Make a weekly meal plan before grocery shopping. Get the kids involved in the planning and making of each meal.

  • Purchase healthy choices of food brands so there is little concern about the nutritional value being offered to your children.

  • Plan for extracurricular activities at a time other than during the supper hour. If this cannot be avoided, plan to eat as a family earlier or later than the scheduled activity. (Soccer is from 5 to 6 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday; eat at 6:30 those evenings and use a Crock-pot to save time.)

  • If the children really dislike what is being prepared, only substitute on items that will not take extra time (raw veggies for cooked, offer a piece of chicken if a child has an aversion to fish); meals should be about the experience of togetherness, not about slaving in the kitchen to meet everyone's likes and dislikes.

  • Sometimes the dining experience makes all the difference. Make sure you are sitting down together at a table away from the TV. Pull out the fancy china and drink milk out of good crystal. Have the kids set the table in decorative ways by using their imaginations.

  • At the table, enticing conversation should come easily as people sit together in a circular fashion, facing one another. You learn a lot about each individual family member when there is discussion at the dinner table. Use conversation prompts to get people talking: "Tell me what the best part of your day was and what the worst was. Tell me a new word you learned today and what does it mean?"

  • Have theme nights where you learn about a different country/culture and make food items from that place - eat with chopsticks or with your hands only! Go on picnics in the park or right in the middle of your family room. Create a fun atmosphere and remove the pressure of eating from the experience. Concentrate on enjoying each other's company. Once everyone is relaxed, the eating will come.

  • Impose appropriate restrictions on picky eaters and on those who refuse to eat but only want the after-dinner treats. "When your plate is finished you may have a desert/treat if you have room in your tummy for it."

  • If children refuse to eat, wrap it up and put it in the fridge for the immediate future, but refrain from giving them anything else. Value a child's need to listen to their own bodies telling them that they are no longer hungry. If they are hungry an hour later, direct them to the fridge to eat what they did not finish at mealtime. When these rules are respected, there will be no more arguing about the quantity (or quality) a child is eating.

  • Keep in mind that children also eat less, but more often than adults do; it is unrealistic to expect that children will eat a large plate full at three meals a day. It's probably more reasonable for them to have six smaller portions throughout the day.

  • Insist that people do not leave the table until everyone agrees to be dismissed. Just because the food part of the meal is over, it doesn't mean the conversation has to end.

Dyan Eybergen
, a child and adolescent psychiatric nurse, has more than ten years experience working as a therapist and parent educator. Eybergen currently resides in St. Albert, Alberta, with her husband and three sons. "Out of the Mouths of Babes" is her first book. For more information visit or Permission granted for use on

Tags: Behavior, Motherhood-Fatherhood, Parenting, Relatives, Teens, Tips, Values
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