Before I became a mom, I envisioned perfectly plated, balanced meals, eaten without a fight on beautiful plates while my family enjoyed effortless, joyful conversation. That was before I became a mom. Now, after being a mom for nearly a decade, I’ve seen family meals lose their joy way too quickly. Maybe it’s the sink full of dishes that no one helps with. Maybe it’s the constant whining about the food. Maybe it’s the decision fatigue and general lack of caring that I have by 5 pm each day. Maybe it’s the exhaustion of repetition with “sit in your chair. Face forward. Use a fork. Use a napkin. Chew with your mouth closed. No, you can’t go potty. Yes, you like this food. No, you can’t have chicken nuggets. No, you can’t have a snack. Sit down. All 4 legs on the floor, please. USE A FORK!” I used to think to myself, “I can’t be the only one experiencing meals like this! What am I doing wrong?” The worst part about all of it is disappointment in myself for not living up to the made-up, unrealistic standard that I’d invented in my head years ago for how this should go.
After 3 kids, a decade of parenting, and even longer as a pediatric and family Registered Dietitian, I’ve learned a few hacks that can help bring joy back to the family table. Here are my top 4, delivered with some favorite movie and TV quotes.
- “Hang the code and hang the rules. They’re more like guidelines anyway.”- Pirates of the Caribbean. In Pirates of the Caribbean, there’s a scene where an aristocratic woman is trying to convince pirates to go against the pirate code and she delivers this line. While family meals might not involve negotiating with pirates (debatable to be honest), this mindset is spot on. The “rules” that we’ve made for ourselves, for our meals, for the behavior of our children, are mostly guidelines. We aren’t held by these rules. We aren’t bound by some invisible code of rules and consequences. While experts are amazing helpers and create useful guidelines for us, allow yourself some flexibility. You are the expert in your family. You know what works and doesn’t work. So, pay more attention to your family and the relationships, and less attention to some rule that clearly isn’t working for you.
- “What’s the plan?” “Plan? There ain’t no plan!”- Mad Max. I cannot count the number of days that I’ve reached 5 pm and felt this way. “Plan? There’s no plan!” As a frequently overwhelmed mom, especially in the little years, having a plan was essential for my mental well-being. Planning what to eat for your family requires brain space to assess what’s available, read everyone’s attitudes, plan, execute, and absorb changes all at once. For the day-to-day interactions, entering the 5 pm dinner shuffle can be overwhelming, especially to repeat it every. single. day. I recommend at least having a plan for a few days at a time, or a week, or longer. By batching our brain space into fewer sessions, we can reduce our daily mental load, and intentionally create and execute our plan for daily meals.
- “PIVOT! PIVOT! PIV-OT!”- Friends. This iconic scene is hilarious, even if it does cause some secondhand anxiety. Sometimes, once we’ve made a plan, it seems impossible to pivot. Other times, we realize that a pivot is the only way we can possibly move forward. As important as it is to have a plan, it’s just as important to be flexible. Sometimes sports practices go late, or I forget to thaw the meat, or the kids are downright hangry jerks. Either way, it’s important to be flexible, and be willing to pivot. Keep the focus on enjoying the time with your family, and not worrying about whether or not everything is perfect as previously planned.
- “Hakuna Matata. It means no worries.”- The Lion King. One of the most important things about family meals is the intentional gathering of family members together. Whether it’s in a living room, at a table, or at a fast-food restaurant, it’s important to be intentional in the time with family. One day, my children will not remember the food they were served, or whether or not they were picky eaters. They will, however, remember the way they feel at the family table. They will remember the welcoming, encouraging attitude at the table, as well as the grace for imperfection in our family. After a decade of parenting, I’ve learned to intentionally engage in conflict with my kids around mealtimes. If it’s not an urgent or important issue, then I just won’t press it during a meal. Instead, I will intentionally decide when to approach the topic and will instead intentionally create a meal environment that I want my children to want to return to day after day. This includes always having at least one food on the plate my children like. Again, always seeking to create a joyful meal instead of chasing perfection.
These 4 hacks have helped transform our mealtimes from stress, dread, and complaining (from all of us) to mealtimes of fellowship, eating, and building relationships together. The biggest recommendation I always make to families who are struggling is to embrace what works, make change gently, and intentionally embrace your routine, meals, and relationships. We still have stressful meals, but they’re less frequent these days, and they’re threaded together by (mostly) good meals together in between the hard days.
Heather Campbell, RD, founder of Glory Nutrition, is a Registered Dietitian, mom of 3, military spouse, and a family and child nutrition expert with over a decade of experience in the field. You can learn much more from Heather on her website.