Debbie Gross, LCSW, Ltd. - Individual, Marital & Family Therapy

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One Therapist's Reflections

Hey Mom, What's for Dinner?

From October 12, 2009

One of the most important things we can do with our children is share a meal together. If you’re like many families, finding time to prepare, let alone eat a meal together, amidst carpools for dance, soccer, Hebrew School, CCD, and violin practice is nearly impossible. Yet it is one of the most connecting times you can spend as a family. Take a look at what you can do to bring the family together for dinner at least 2-3 times each week. And let’s talk about what you can do to create harmony in your family during these times.

1) No cell phones, television, or other distractions. Treat this time as truly family-focused. Unless you, as a parent, are on call for your job, it is important for you to model the time as ‘family first’ by not answering your phone or allowing other things to distract you from this sacred time.

2) Don’t be a short order cook. When you plan your family meal, keep all members in mind. Make sure there is something on the table that each person will enjoy. This doesn’t mean you have to make 5 different entrees. Instead, make sure the vegetable, salad, or potato is something that even the pickiest eater will enjoy. Offer each member a taste bite of everything. This is really just a ‘pea-sized’ taste. Sometimes tasting a food over time will help develop a liking for it. But don’t force-feed the food. That creates more food issues with children than just exposing them to it and allowing them to experiment. I still don't eat green peppers or olives, and I think I'm doing ok!

3) Be creative. In our house, we once used a Sunday meal to taste different sauces. What the kids didn’t pay attention to was that they were actually eating chicken that they normally didn’t eat. But because we were tasting sauces, they attended to the teriyaki, BBQ, ketchup, honey-mustard, etc. that was on the table, and had a sheet of paper to rank each flavor. It was fun, and I learned that almost anything became edible if teriyaki sauce was used!

4) Serve your food family style, and let your little ones help themselves rather than put the food on their plates. All three of my kids were picky eaters. I was so frustrated when they were little because even spaghetti was on the list of ‘don’t like’. Spaghetti – who ever heard of a kid who didn’t eat spaghetti! One day, I was running late and didn’t have time to fully prepare the meal. So the noodles were in the strainer, the sauce in a bowl, and I just brought it all to the table. Each child was so excited to put the noodles and sauce on her plate and they all took second helpings. I never realized that having them scoop it out themselves made the difference in them ‘owning the meal’, and thus, eating the meal!

5) Once I realized that they liked to serve themselves, I also began to let the little chefs into the kitchen. Each child picked a Sunday, created the menu, went shopping for the food, and helped prepare it. Because a child was involved, there was more willingness by her sisters to try different foods. The chef was delighted to eat what she prepared, and typically had a menu choice that was kid-friendly. Our favorite was a sloppy joe recipe that combined some of the most unusual ingredients into a delicious tasting meal! The kids loved putting the odds and ends into the frying pan and were shocked at how it turned out so yummy. I’m including the recipe here for you to try. This comes from a District 102 cookbook, but the ingredients have been slightly modified. Thanks to Fran Horwitz for the recipe.
Sloppy Joes the Fun Way

1 ½ lbs. Ground beef or ground turkey
1 small bottle of ketchup
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
1 Tablespoon grape jelly
1 Tablespoon mustard
1 Tablespoon white vinegar
Onion powder, salt and pepper to taste

Brown beef or turkey in a frying pan and drain.
Add all other ingredients and simmer for 20-30 minutes.
Serve on buns.

6) Don’t force your children to eat justbecause it's dinnertime. Babies feel when their bodies are hungry, and signal their hunger with crying. As they get older, we put them on a schedule because it socially and logistically fits into our lifestyles. Having a family meal is more about spending time together as a family, talking, laughing, and sharing about each person’s day. Food happens to be a part of it. Kids who are given opportunities to taste different foods, but are given the ability to decide how much they want to eat actually develop healthier eating patterns than children who are given platefuls of food and made to consume what’s in front of them. Sometimes a child is truly not hungry at that moment. It is important to make sure they are not continuously snacking after their post-school snack, without regard to their body hunger, because that is not listening to the hunger cue either. But a child who can get a snack when he feels hungry can also let you know when he is not hungry – and sometimes it coincides with dinnertime. Don’t make a big deal of it and most likely it will not become a behavioral or attention-getting issue. 

7) Don’t make dessert the reward for finishing dinner. When you place such importance on dessert, you increase its inherent value to a child. Dessert is just a snack. Make sure you help your children attend to what kind of snack they feel like eating. Sometimes, that cool feeling of ice cream, rolling down the back of your throat, is the perfect thing. Other times, the crisp, crunchy bite into apple slices, juice dripping down to your chin, is what you desire. My favorite snack is cold, creamy vanilla yogurt, mixed with crunchy grape nuts and chewy raisins. Teach children to think about what they want to eat – this is the beginning of attuned eating - eating when you’re hungry, and eating what you’re hungry for. Sometimes it’s sweet, sometimes it’s chewy, sometimes it’s hot, other times it’s cold. If you're having trouble with this concept, google 'attuned eating' and see if it helps you teach your child to determine hunger, satiety, and portions in a healthy way.

Above all, make sure family dinners are a time to check in with each person. Make dinner last as long as you can, but not so long that the children are squirming and misbehaving, so that becomes your focus. Sometimes, ten quality minutes of sitting down, self-serving the food, and sharing a few thoughts together is all it takes to help your family feel more connected. Try it tonight!! Bon appetit!


5 Comments to Hey Mom, What's for Dinner?:

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anonymous on Thursday, August 16, 2018 6:16 AM
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essay service on Wednesday, October 31, 2018 1:13 PM
This are really good tips for helping a family gather together each day during dinner. This is the only time of the day that parents and children can talk about their day. Breakfast doesn't count because every morning is a rush to prepare for school for the kids and for the office for the parents. My husband and I really try hard to be at dinner no matter how busy they are. Our children, who are in middle school and high school, know not to bring their electronic devices to the dining table. We insist on this because it just 30 minutes to 1 hour that they can't use their celphone or ipad. These rules work for us.
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