Since all people have to take in some form of nourishment to live, wouldn’t it make sense that fulfilling this most basic human need should be as easy as breathing?
Why must family mealtime be so challenging?
All I want to do is bring my beautiful family together for a healthy, happy meal. And yet it sometimes feels like I’ve gone out in the wilderness and brought back kids who’ve been raised by wolverines.
Look, some nights everything goes alright—nights when my precious family should grace the cover of Look at This Perfect Family Eat Dinner magazine. But then there are the dinners I’m convinced need to be filmed and shown to newlyweds as a warning before they’re allowed to become parents.
The Power of Family Meals
A study by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) found eating together as a family at least 5 times a week dramatically lowers a teen’s chance of smoking, drinking, and using drugs.
Furthermore, the CASA study found teenagers who have less than three family meals each week are 3 times more likely to have used drugs, 2.5 times more likely to have smoked cigarettes, and 1.5 times more likely to have tried alcohol.
Perhaps God was on to something when he used the family table to emblemize the blessings of a righteous life (Psalm 128). He knows the family table can be a place where parents create a culture of celebration, teaching, hospitality, and fellowship. Maybe this is also why Jesus used table-fellowship as a central activity of his ministry for celebration and teaching.
I started to think a lot about what my role as Mom plays in our family mealtime style. Am I somehow “controlling the family climate” at the table? Am I helping to make it a great experience? Are there places I could improve? (The short answer is yes!)
Is it the same for you? Take the quiz to find out what your family’s mealtime style is and what role you’re playing.
Take the Quiz
Situation #1: You’ve had your hands full today, and yet you’ve managed to do four loads of laundry, buy groceries, and have the car serviced. You’re absolutely exhausted.
A. You get yourself to the kitchen and start cooking while thinking to yourself how unfair it is that you even have to do this. Where is your husband? Why aren’t your kids helping? When the meal is served, you can barely swallow your own anger.
B. It doesn’t matter how tired you are. Good moms put themselves last. You’re going to make a great supper, and they don’t need to know how exhausted you are.
C. There is no way you can drag yourself to the kitchen to cook. You bring the kids together, share how you’re feeling and ask them to contribute ideas for an easy solution for supper.
D. Tonight it’s going to be about just getting food into their bodies. Time for takeout. You’ll have an easier day tomorrow and get back to healthier choices.
Situation #2. You’ve created a new dish that is healthy, delicious, and what you believe may be the single best thing you’ve ever cooked during your tenure as a mother. You’re already planning how self-deprecating you’ll be when all the compliments pour in. You place it before your family and wait for the cheers. Instead, one of your children pokes at it with a fork and squishes up her face. The other says it smells bad.
A. You tell yourself this was a failure and vow never to try anything new again.
B. You glance at your husband with a look that he understands to mean, “Do something. Help me make these kids eat this food.”
C. You explain why you wanted to try this new dish. There are some nutrients here that work together to help the body heal itself. Eating like this is one of the best things we can do as a family to stay well.
D. It’s fine. You knew when you made it that you were introducing something new and not everyone is going to love everything you cook.
Situation #3. You woke up this morning in a fog. For whatever reason, you’ve not been on your game today. Mealtime is no different. You throw something together that even you aren’t sure you want to eat.
A. Instead of chatting with everyone about their day, you make little comments about how the meal could have been better if the family would do more to help around the house.
B. You sit down at the table and start with an apology about how you let everyone down, and one by one, you list all the reasons why you didn’t do a better job.
C. You giggle as you tell the story of how you somehow managed to put the phone in the refrigerator and it took you 30 minutes to find it. The entire family roars with laughter, and you talk about how everyone has days like this one.
D. As your family gobbles up the hurried meal you prepared, you remind yourself that life isn’t perfect and you’re doing the best you can.
Situation #4. You know the kids need to learn to do more things for themselves, so you share the news with them that they’ll be preparing the meal for the evening. You give them the recipe, tell them they have to do it all themselves and clean up their mess as they go.
A. You barely recognize the food on your plate. Is that a bean or something they accidentally dropped in the pot? You ask, “Why didn’t you follow the recipe? You didn’t do at all what I asked you to do.”
B. You pop into the kitchen every five minutes asking if they have any questions. You remind them where the measuring cups are and the difference between a spatula and a spoon.
C. You ask questions and talk about their answers. “Was it hard work? What did you like about it? What didn’t you like about cooking the meal?” You share your own likes and dislikes about preparing meals. You see this as an opportunity for a lesson on empathy.
D. The food tastes like it might actually have soap in it. It’s so bad that you have to ask yourself whether your children actually understand how food works. You smile anyway and focus on the wonderful job they did working together.
Situation #5. The kids seem to be especially rambunctious at the table tonight. You’ve told them more than once (scratch that—more times than you can remember) to settle down. The next thing you know someone’s glass goes flying, one has bumped the other in the head, and at least one of them is crying so loudly you know for sure the neighbors think a crime is being committed.
A. You send everyone away from the table without finishing their supper. It’s too much and the only thing left to do is stop the madness.
B. You spring into action. “This is why I told you 3 times now to settle down. When you don’t listen to me, this is what happens!”
C. You know the bonked heads can be kissed, the crying child can be comforted, and the milk is easily wiped away. You thank God for the lesson you needed today.
D. As the saying goes, no sense in crying over spilled milk. We were all kids once, and sometimes things go off the rails.
If you answered mostly A’s…
You are Guilting Gertrude. Your family mealtime style is pretty tense. You’re a stressed-out mom who brings her stormy weather with you to the dinner table—and you want others to feel as bad as you do.
If you answered mostly B’s…
You are Controlling Cathy. Your family’s mealtime style is subdued, but you feel like everything is on your shoulders—and anything short of perfection counts as a failure. You try to gain control of every situation—sometimes overtly, other times covertly—and in doing so your family misses out on truly meaningful interactions for fear of stepping on your toes.
If you answered mostly C’s…
You are Teaching Tania. Your family mealtime style is educational. Your children leave the table a little better than they were when they sat down—or that’s your goal anyway. Sure, the food is cold sometimes. Yes, one of the kids chews so loudly you have to wonder whether a random goat wandered inside. But, your table is an opportunity for learning from one another, and learning sometimes gets messy.
If you answered mostly D’s…
You are Laid-Back Lisa. Your family mealtime style is pretty easy going. At your table, it’s not the end of the world if someone won’t eat their veggies. Your calmness and inner peace make everyone else more relaxed and easygoing. You are an example of how to focus on the good all around you despite all the little annoyances.
A Plan for Mealtime Madness
I think all our families at times fit into each of these mealtime styles. I think every mom experiences days like these moms.
Often the difference between the meaningful meals and the haggard meals is not whether there is unpredictable chaos or finicky moods (that is bound to happen). The difference is in our own attitudes and how we plan to make meals meaningful.
There are some foundational habits every family needs that can really transform the culture of your home so you can connect more meaningfully with your kids and train them in the ways of the Lord—even at the dinner table.
We’ve created resources to help you develop these habits, both for yourself and for your family. If you struggle with being frequently angry and frustrated, we understand! Our course “Losing It: 3 Steps to Overcoming Your Anger and Becoming a Happier Mom” might be helpful for you. Or if you prefer to read, Losing It comes in a book format too (for both parents).
Another habit to help transform the culture of your home and family is that of servanthood. Our training series “Servant or Selfish? Ditching the Me-First Mentality and Becoming a Family That Serves” offers parents over two hours of training material (in two sessions), including concrete ideas about how to not just teach kids about servant-heartedness but also practice service in the real world.
Finally, if you’re not already in the habit of doing family Bible studies, this simple addition to your routine– which is something you could easily do at the dinner table!– could make a world of difference. We have several family Bible studies, including one on the Apostle’s Creed and another on the Ten Commandments, among others.