Most parents and caregivers know that family meals with little ones can be filled with tears, fussiness, antsy little bodies and frustrated adults. It is no coincidence. Meal times at the end of the day have us all tired, overstimulated and often hangry.
What we know from the work by Daniel Siegel on Interpersonal Neurobiology is that connecting to other humans, relating in socially enhancing ways can facilitate a calmer, less rigid and more flexible approach to challenges... such as meal time. What we also know is that a clear structure can also allow children and adults to feel more secure and adaptable in such situations. So relationship and structure. How do we add those two to make meal time connecting and loving?
This field notes are from a time my partner and I went to couples therapy to solve the very mystery around the tension meal time always brought to our little family and our relationship. Our sons at the time where 3 and 5 and 100% full of energy!
Get Clear on Your Values
Whether you are a single parent or live in a multigenerational household, having a clear sense of the values you are intending to hold is crucial. The more people involved in the family the more complex this can be, however, you can move from implicitly following some preconceived and unexplored notion to bringing intentionality into how you want to lead your family.
Togetherness, Connection, Respect.
Our values were to have a sense of togetherness and connection, while also respecting both the time and efforts the adult put into prepping and the expansive growing energetic body our children were so actively working on.
Togetherness, Connection, Respect.
Build the Container
The big human(s) in the household build the container for those values to flourish. Our container included two essential items: an 20min (or less) hourglass, a candle/per child.
- engaging kids in prepping (Yes, I know, this is actually adding on to the mess, stress and work...) some children do better when they feel included in the adult activities, their sense of participation and mastery tells them they belong to our world. Allow your child to mash the potatoes, chose the shape of pasta, draw/write a dinner menu, set the table, etc.
- set up some rules you are willing to live with and gently remind your family of what those rules are, this works best if kids are involved in making the rules. For example: 1) only items for feeding at the table (or the more negative version of that: no toys or electronics at the table), and 2) once we sit down at the table we stay at the table (including parents- no more running in and out of the kitchen to fetch one more item, try to have all you need there so you are able to stay present).
- build a beginning ritual that suits your family. My children brought a ritual home from our neighbors' dinner table and we love it- we hold hand, take 3 deep breaths together and end by saying "I love you".
- turn the 20min hour glass over and let the gentle sand visually show your child of the time they are expected to stay at the table. Light up the candles.
- have some kind of sharing and connecting agenda, in our household, if we seem bored or distracted we share "3 things that made me smile/feel good/____ today". Kids do better with directives, vs "did you smile today?".
- as the sand fully transitions to the bottom of the hour glass, children are signaled that their time at the table may end.
- build a closing rituals, for example children can now blow out their candles.
Give the new container a couple of weeks to become the new "normal" and enjoy connecting to your family over a meal, offering nourishment for the heart and not just the tummy.