After we all stop guffawing at the prospect of our kids happily gnawing on such an array of non-frozen foods not swaddled in breadcrumbs; you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find a free stock photo of a dinner table that doesn’t include several bottles of wine or someone bending seductively over a pizza. Moving on.
Sitting down to eat together may sound obvious to many, but it’s not always the “norm.” When we were growing up, it was always ‘Parents in the kitchen, kids in the living room in front of the box.’ Our dining table was like a neglected pet, cowering apologetically in the corner. I’m not sure why this was our case – apart from the fact that Dad worked overseas a lot, and Mum needed her downtime of an evening, so dinner tended to happen in a double shift. Our scant sit down meals were usually instigated by some family event. Failing that, there was always Christmas!
As the adage goes, ‘The family that eats together, stays together.’ Well, that’s not necessarily true. Myself and my siblings are still close, hooking up regularly for meals, but, looking back, it’s regrettable that we didn’t spend more time in this setting with our parents. Maybe we would’ve got to know them better. It’s because of this that we try to sit down with the tiddlers at least once a day.
When they were younger, mealtimes were a battle. Getting food into them was incredibly difficult. I made it difficult #mamguilt. Unfortunately, nobody told me to be all French about it, and exude “serene indifference” during mealtimes. I wasn’t aware that there were only two rules: I choose what to make, they choose how much they eat.
When the eldest started rejecting food at around 14 months, I used to plonk her in front of CBeebies and shovel bits of food into her as he stared slack-jawed at the screen. It didn’t matter how it got into her, as long as it got in there, right? RIGHT?! After copping that this was not a healthy way of doing things, the highchair was moved into the kitchen, where we distracted her with books while playing food ninja. This was slightly better, but still, not a great way to start a relationship with food. Mealtimes should be an event. Something that brings people together, to fulfil them in more ways than one, to share more than the meal, etc. etc.
When the second child came along, we changed things. Child number one now helps mum in the kitchen, while child number two watches, usually roaring to be involved. Then we sit down, and I generally chat away to myself while they smear food all over themselves. Sometimes the food gets in, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the food gets completely ignored, and I have to remind myself – that’s OK. The point is it’s there if they want it, and – most importantly – it’s an enjoyable experience. We’re having a laugh… Yes, it’s beyond frustrating when you spend an age cooking something healthy, the kitchen looks like yer man from The Meaning of Life has wandered in and exploded all over it, and the little feckers still won’t eat… But, hey, you’re eating. And they can see you enjoying your food, which is just as important. When it comes to mealtimes, you need to start as you mean to go on.
This is all very well and good coming from someone who fortunately has the time to do these things. The majority of current working households consist of parents who haven’t a moment to blink, never mind cook a dinner from scratch. Meals are consumed on public transport, while beetling down the road, at 11pm in front of the telly, or 3pm in front of the computer. That’s why weekends are so vitally important. It’s precious time when we should banish all the screens and bond. Conversations that invariably kick off with something you’ve seen on the telly can evolve into the most thought-provoking discussions.
For younger families, dinner conversation boosts a child’s vocabulary, and it’s been proven that sharing meals with your teenagers can reduce rates of eating disorders and increase self-esteem. For grown-up children, it provides a bit of downtime, an oasis of familiarity in an increasingly hectic world… So, if you’ve not made it tradition already, invite your nearest and dearest to sit down at least once a week so you can catch up (my older sister always insists on a Saturday brunch or a Sunday Lunch to monitor how hungover her twin 19-year-olds are). Why not welcome that lonely dining table back into the family fold? It’s never too late to start.