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Invite Your Kids (Even Babies) To Sunday Dinner! Why We Need To Fight Against The Extinction Of Family Meals.

It’s Sunday. Are you having Family Dinner? What does it look like for you?

Is it this?

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Or this?

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Or even this?

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Is your table where you serve your food, or your back seat?

Let me start by saying that a friend of mine recently commented that she felt guilty that her son had to eat dinner on the way to soccer practice and I reassured her of her Mommy-Awesomeness by revealing the impressive fact that my daughter ate Mac-N-Cheese for dinner on the way to dance that was served in a glass measuring cup because all the bowls were dirty! (Who can beat that I ask you?)

The strong current of society pushing the average family (mine included) so swiftly that it somehow keeps up from remembering the importance of how a family meal contributes to a child’s development and frankly, the health of all of us.

Before we had children, my husband and I are at the kitchen table at times, but more often than not, we ate in front of the good old TV. Not a proud admission, but when there is just two of you, setting the table seems a bit – much. Or at least it did for me EVERY night. When we started having children, that shifted. MANY of my memories of childhood centered around the table. From secrets at the “kid table” (which I sat at until a few years ago) with my cousins to reading the morning paper with my parents over breakfast, sharing a meal together was part of our regular existence and for good reason. I wanted the same for my daughters.

Children who eat at the table with their parents learn many things, and I am not talking about what fork to use first. At family meals, children learn to make EYE CONTACT. They learn to use MANNERS. They practice the fine ART OF CONVERSATION (with actual voices and not just text messages). They learn SOCIAL ETIQUETTE such as taking turns when speaking and LISTENING to what matters to someone they care about. The greatest part of all of this – they get to practice all of this in the safety net of the people who love them most in the world – their parents and siblings! The family meal is where children can take a stab at the something besides the entree – they can explore social relationships with people of various ages and learn from real experiences how to connect with others over a meal. And guess what? As adults – this is a skill they will NEED.

Do you know how early this starts? Ready for it?… IMMEDIATELY.

Here are some ideas to make this look real for our families.

A newborn can be held during dinner or placed in a safe place near the table (this may be my only endorsement of what I call the “baby container.” Usually I am not a fan, HERE’S WHY). Hearing the voices of his/her family members and smelling new smells are important SENSORY EXPERIENCES.

An older baby will watch you eat before he/she does. Yes, sucking is a natural reflex, but chewing is a learned one. I remember a bright and loving parent, whose daughter was blind, ask me how she could teach her to chew and spit out toothpaste. (With help – we found a way, but the example illustrates that activities as simple as chewing must be modeled). If a baby is not given a place at the table, he/she is denied the modeled example of many DAILY SKILLS, like chewing, but also drinking from a cup, using a spoon etc.

An even older baby, learns to IMITATE at the table. The meal provides opportunity to mimic behaviors he/she views. In addition to the chewing example, the baby learns to self feed using both hands and utensils. Yes, this is MESSY, but that’s what wipes are for. Babies don’t learn to feed themselves (or do anything else) without PRACTICE first. (Plus one day that spaghetti face picture will be really funny). Did you know that once a child can imitate a motor behavior (sometimes as subtle as sticking out his/her tongue), he/she can imitate language? Think about it,modeling simple movements (blinking eyes, clapping hands, banging toy on tray) all come before language. Family meal times are a great place to practice this essential skill. More about that HERE.

Children learn WHO THEIR PEOPLE ARE at the table. Receptive language (understanding) comes before verbal language (expression of words). Ask your baby where his/her sibling, parent, dog are – they’ll surprise you by looking right at them, before they can call them by name. Practicing this at meal time with people or objects (where is the banana?) gives baby an opportunity to recognize and  eventually verbalize to “their people.” Think of it as your 1st family conversation. Soak it up!

Children develop a variety of PREFERENCES for food at the family meal. Experiment with different textures, colors, smells, tastes, and temperatures (all as your pediatrician advises) and you will quickly learn even more about your child. My 9 year old is not a fan of meat – and in true form, at her first taste of the baby food version of chicken, she promptly vomited it right back out at me.  Meat clearly was not her preference. Note taken. (Pass the wipes please, Honey).

Meal times are also a place to share early information about NUTRITION. If I let my daughter make her own decisions, she would chose noodles, rice, pizza, and bread every night. It’s not been an easy road to her seat at our dinner table, but she finally understands that she needs all of the food groups at each meal and why. This can start at an early age for any child. Keep it simple and in terms children can understand at their age – “Fruits provide vitamins that help keep you from getting sick. Dairy keeps your bones and teeth strong. Vegetables are important for your eyes, skin, and hair. Protein helps build muscles so you can lift heavy things and complex carbohydrates give you energy to run for a long time.”  Trust me, kids understand this much more than “clear your plate because I said so.” Let’s be real – they come out selfish little people and if they realize there is something in it for them, they are often more motivated.  (My latest attempt for my vertically challenged offspring is that to get out of the booster seat like their pals, they’ll need to eat well to grow. I’m hoping this works before I drop them off at their first junior high dance.)  Teaching this can be fun! Have younger kids? Model balanced nutrition with pretend play foods! We use My Plate. I keep a copy on the side of the fridge and they need to compare their plate to this example.

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If they don’t want the salmon I made, that’s fine with us, as long as they 1) choose another healthy protein (nuts or peanut butter are popular choices in our house) and 2) I don’t have to make it. (Nope, I do wear many hats but short order cook is not one I claim).  I wish my children were more adventurous with foods, but I gave up the battle for a wide variety long ago and focused on healthy balance. I hear variety should increase with age – I’m not holding but breath but found this information on answering the question of “Is your Child a Picky Eater or Problem Feeder” helpful.  More ideas for including kids in mealtime HERE.  I love this idea for hands on learning about food!

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In addition, exposure to varied food can teach kids early on about different CULTURES and WHERE AND HOW FOOD is grown. Visit local farms to show them how real food actually grows on trees and in the ground. Enjoy self picking if you have orchards that provide the option or garden if you have the talent that I do not! Do you have a dairy farm near by? (We have one that delivers milk in old fashioned glass jars to a cooler in our driveway. Our girls love him and call him the Milk Fairy. I call him HEAVEN SENT because I am no longer running to the store all the time!)  Learning about the process of getting food from garden to table helps children value their nutrition and take ownership of it. I love this idea pinned on our Pinterest Board to share where different foods come from.

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So meals are important, but let’s keep our focus on reasonable goals. Maybe one person in your family works late. Yes, you might have to feed the kids early, but they could sit with the spouse that works late while he/she eats and have a small dessert. Maybe your kids have activities or practice many nights a week. Aim for sitting together 2-3 times a week. And breakfast on a weekend can count. Maybe you don’t have time every night to cook or plan — in my humble opinion, a quality family experience together over bowls of cereal, outweighs anything alone in front of a screen any day. Two thirds of American families eat dinner with a T.V. on. Think of it as the T.V. robbing you from the limited number of conversations you can have with your 3 year old (there are fewer than you realize). Let’s change that statistic and together raise children who can share the highlights of their day while asking to pass the cereal (oops, I meant, quinoa with tilapia and asparagus).

Family meals are too important to become extinct. We need them to raise independent and healthy children. So, get to thinking about some practical, realistic ways, you can invite your favorite little guest to dinner! Here are some from our Pinterest Board – PLAY With Food to get you started.  Share your ideas with us here or on Facebook! Bon appetite!

Like these ideas? We believe that linking child development to PLAY makes both parents & children smarter and happier. So we offer hundreds of examples of just that. Bonus is – they come in card form so while you can have time to digest that family dinner together because you can learn about your child while only digesting small bits of specific information at EACH stage of infant/toddler development. Want to hear more? Check out 1-2-3 Just Play With Me (great as a baby gift! and WE SHIP FOR FREE!)