News & Views
from   The Parenting Center at Abington

.   Managing Mealtime Mania

      "There's nothin' good to eat here."
      "Use your fork, not your fingers."
      "He got more cookies than I did."
      "Not McDonald's AGAIN!!"
      "This looks like dog food!!"
      "I'm too worn out to cook, have cereal."

    Smile out loud if any of these lines sound familiar! For some of us, they are far too familiar. We are among the many parents who want to wave the white flag when it comes to mealtimes. My personal favorite was born following a family meal when my son pulled out a frosting container from the refrigerator and asked me, "What's the exasperation date on this?"

   Mealtime mania. It can feel exasperating. Especially when time and energy have been expended to bring food and family together. Conversely, exasperation may result from the difficulty in coming together as a family for meals. Conflicts in scheduling or demands from outside the home often keep us apart during times we'd rather be together. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize how fragmented our society and families have become.

   Despite the scheduling obstacles and changes in lifestyles, family and parenting researchers continue to emphasize the value of family table time. It is described by Delores Curran as "the gathering place for the clan, the one time each day that parents and children are assured of uninterrupted time with one another." In her book, Traits of a Healthy Family, Curran's survey of 500 family professionals ranked family table time as thirteenth out of fifty-six healthy family traits.

   Dr. Lee Salk claims that "the busier you are, the more valuable mealtime is for your child." He goes on to state that at the table "healthy attitudes toward family life" can be developed. Barbara Coloroso in Kids are Worth It! describes a meal as "one of the oldest and most fundamentally unifying of human experiences." And Dr. Thomas Lickona in Raising Good Children refers to the dinner hour as "a golden opportunity for the kind of communication that draws kids out, deepens relationships, and makes a difference in their moral development."

    These authors emphasize the gathering, the connecting of family members through conversation. The food and a table are means to that end. The meal need not be home cooked and served on a fancy tablecloth with candles and classical music to smiling kids wearing fresh clean clothing.

   Authors and parents alike stress making mealtime a family priority. Dinner business meetings are turned down. Sports activities that require participation through early evening hours are discouraged. These families expect and place a high value on shared mealtime. Then they protect this time from outside pressures. This does not mean family members are not occasionally excused or that the mealtime cannot shift to accommodate changes. Flexibility and support for one another are also "traits of a healthy family!"

   A second common theme related to mealtime is the TV. It seems unanimous. TURN IT OFF!! Communication shuts off when the TV is turned on. Mealtime is reduced to feeding time. The family is robbed of perhaps the only time available to connect.

   Convinced of mealtime's importance, let's reconsider the chaos. Some suggested tips compiled from the aforementioned authors to manage the mania include:

     Set ground rules. Examples: One person speaks at a time. No interrupting. Each person's plate must have two items of food on it before anyone can begin eating. The answering machine takes all calls. Assess what your family needs as tabletime boundaries.

     Establish rituals. Many families say grace before eating, perhaps while holding hands. Give each person at the table a compliment. Select a person to choose a "topic of the meal" such as a current event or a value such as honesty. Traditions add an element of unity, relationship building, and memory making.

     Talk about the day's events. But don't interrogate one another! Coloroso suggests talking about yourself or your day rather than asking questions which usually elicit a one word answer (particularly during the teen years).

      Ask open ended questions. Dr. Lickona has a list of Topics for Dinner Discussion that lend creativity to the old, "How was your day?" Two out of the eight listed that I am inserting into our family meals are:
       What was something you learned today?
       What's something you did today that you never did before?

       Save tension producing topics for after the meal. This holds true for discussions that may lead to sibling rivalry or put downs when all are together.

   This is just a sample of ideas. You might even make "managing mealtime mania" a mealtime topic!! Do remember that there is no perfect family. If shared meals have not been a part of your family's routine, start small. Plan one weekend meal together, then gradually add one or two during the week. Despite our best efforts, there will continue to be moments of exasperation. Even Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings may not "trim the troops!" But the messages we send to our children of the importance of family togetherness at mealtimes will feed far more than their empty stomachs for far longer than the next, "I'm hungry!!"

By: Pam Nicholson, MSW Certified Parenting Educator

Resources: Kids Are Worth It! - Barbara Coloroso
Traits of a Healthy Family - Delores Curran
Kids Raising Good Children - Dr. Thomas Lickona
November 1999
Volume 2/ Issue 2

A publication from The Parenting Center at AbingtonP.O. Box 596, Abington, PA 19001 (215) 576-0586

Printing of this newsletter is courtesy of the Abington Memorial Hospital.

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