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Keeping the Family Meal Alive

Like most families, we are busy. We try to limit the chaos, but it still manages to creep into our lives.  The daily grind consists of a mixture of school, sports, appointments, extra-curricular activities, play dates, Birthday parties, homework and so on and so forth. In talking with friends, it seems this is the norm for many. 

With all of life’s hustle and bustle — how do we take time to pause, sit and enjoy one another’s company? 

For our family, the answer to the chaos has been family meals. In particular — dinner. 

Every week, I plan our Monday through Friday meals and write them down on the Menu chalkboard that rests on our kitchen counter. When the new menu goes up at the beginning of the week, the kids will look and comment on what we’re having. I can’t always say the words are those of gratitude and excitement. I do get the occasional, “Again? Didn’t we just have that?” or an under the breath, “I don’t like (fill in the blank),” but for the most part – the comments are sweet. 

This, I believe, sets the stage for the importance of our shared meal. 

Not only does it emphasize dinner time, it also helps me to be organized enough to actually get the meal on the table. On the same day I create the menu, I order my Clicklist. Done and done. 

This doesn’t mean that life doesn’t sometimes get in the way. There are weeks when a game gets rescheduled, someone is sick, or an unexpected wrench is thrown in the system. As anyone with a family knows, such is life. 

For times like this, I usually have some quick and easy back-ups – frozen pizza, Mac and cheese, spaghetti, grilled cheese (I guess a requirement for a back-up is cheese?). And then of course, there is always take-out. Maybe not the healthiest of options, but they work in a pinch and everyone loves them. 

The meal is planned and groceries are bought – it’s time to start cooking! But how to get the kids excited? Let them chop, stir, measure and taste. I honestly think the meals my kids are most excited about are the ones they help prepare. It’s like their own at-home episode of Chopped Jr. without any other contestants or mystery baskets. So really – it’s not like Chopped Jr. at all (but don’t tell them that.) Want to try something new? Do it on a night when they are helping with preparation and they may be more likely to give the mystery food a try (and not yell “yuck!” before it even reaches their mouth.) 

Meal planning has helped ensure we get to the table, but what about once we are seated? As the kids have gotten older, the challenge has been keeping them engaged. Recently, I started to notice a new trend in our family. One I didn’t really like. At all. After the last bite was chewed, someone would inevitably yell – “I’m finished. May I be excused?” and up they went. The iPad, television, friends or some other distraction had beckoned and they couldn’t resist the call. 

Our special family time seemed to be losing some of it’s luster. 

Determined to keep this time special, I decided something must be done to help the kids stay seated and engaged. Shortly after thinking this, I stumbled across a cute dinner game that showed some promise. I brought it home and plopped it down in the center of our table. The game consists of notecards with different questions – kind of like ice breakers. After dinner, we began to pull the cards out and low and behold – the kids loved it. My husband and I loved it. Nobody rushed from the table that night. Instead, they asked if we could do just one more card. This mama’s heart was about to burst with joy.

After a little time passed I realized that yes, the game was great – but we needed more. At this rate we would fly through these cards. We needed something else to throw in the mix. How about some colored pencils? Sounds good to me. I realize these aren’t the typical centerpieces on a dining room table, but they are what sits on our table and they are practical and I love them. Whenever I walk by them, I am reminded of why they sit there and of what’s important. Why the colored pencils you ask? Because we have a collection of various coloring placemats to keep us creative and entertained and I have learned if the colored pencils remain on the table, we are much more likely to actually use the placemats. 

One other thing we have done for years that I just have to share is “The Celebrate Plate.” This plate is used to acknowledge accomplishments and cheer on family members for a job well done. When someone earns the privilege of eating off “The Celebrate Plate,” it’s a big deal. It’s definitely not overused. And when the kids see it at the table? They are truly excited.

To further give accolades, we will talk about why the Plate has been earned and then we will all yell, “Three cheers for (name)! Hip! Hip! Hooray! Hip! Hip! Hooray!!!” Fists are enthusiastically thrown in the air while the proud recipient sits beaming from ear-to-ear. May sound cheesy — but it has really brought us a lot of joy. The best part for me is that every time we have ever used the Plate, it has been recorded on pieces of paper that sit in the box. Potty training successes, first days at Kindergarten, kind gestures, lost teeth and more. Fond memories. All recorded. 

Dinner time is a special time in our house. We gather to share a meal, talk about our day, have fun and slow down – even if just for a moment – we slow down.

I believe I will have to continue over the years to work to keep the dinner time monotony at bay. Keeping it fun and engaging may be a challenge, but it is one I eagerly accept. I hope our children remember the tradition of meal time fondly as they grow older. Perhaps they will share the same tradition with their children. I hope they will be able to pause for a moment from the hustle and bustle of their lives to gather around the table. 

Together. 

To talk. To laugh. And to eat.

Together.

Because meals are meant to be shared!

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