Make Mealtimes Meaningful

by Dr. Susan Bartell; photo:

After the novelty of back-to-school has worn off, the challenge of fitting in car-pools, homework, activities and your own obligations leaves little time for anything-including breathing! You might not realize it, but your child likely feels exactly the same way. In particular, once the hectic school year ensues, many kids feel that they don’t get enough time with their parents. They miss the later bedtimes and slow days at the pool and their free time to read with you or play outside has been replaced with homework.

There are many reasons that eating meals with your kids is important, but for me, spending a slice or your busy days together is one of the most important. Of course, it can be difficult to find the time-especially if you have more than one child whose schedules conflict, or if you work. So, here are FOUR tips to help you find those valuable nuggets of meal time and capture them.

1. Relinquish the rules. It might not be possible to eat dinner together every night, include every member of your family at every meal, or sit for longer than fifteen minutes, but that doesn’t mean you should throw in the towel! Simply do your best. Round up as many family members as you can, or have two meal times-you can eat the main course with one child and dessert with the other. Breakfast, brunch and lunch count too, so on the weekend, pancakes in the kitchen is perfect. Also give yourself a point for five minutes with your child eating frozen yogurt after school, before soccer.

2. Plan ahead. While eating healthily should be a top priority, it is more important to be together than to serve gourmet meals. Keep your home stocked with easy, healthy choices that your kids enjoy. Pizza (frozen fresh from your favorite pizza parlor), cold cuts, and “homemade” chicken nuggets (they don’t have to be made in your home) are all good choices. Spend time sitting together, eating and talking, rather than cooking.

3. Chat with a purpose. Your goal during meals is to learn as much as possible about your child’s daily life. Since many kids don’t open up easily, it can be tricky to extract information from them. You are more likely to be successful if you listen more than you talk. Do your best to refrain from lecturing, opining or judging. Approach conversations seriously, no matter how trivial the topic may seem to you as an adult (“It must have been frustrating when Ben stole the ball from you!”) In addition, don’t ask too many questions, but when you do, instead of asking general questions (“How was school?), ask specific ones (“Was math hard today?” and “Who did you sit with at lunch?”) Finally, tell age-appropriate stories about your day. Your kids will enjoy them and it will encourage a give-and-take conversation.

4. Focus on fun. Resist the urge to use it as a time to teach or discipline. A few basic rules are important (take your plate from the table, and don’t talk over others), but do your best not to focus on this as a time to make too many rules. Also, be in the moment with your child-enjoying your time together without the TV or any electronics, including your cell phone!

Time together as a family is really very precious so make the most of it and don’t waste a single second of the time you have with one another.

Dr Susan Bartell is a nationally recognized child and parenting psychologist and author. You can learn more about her at