The term "mealtime" can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different families. To one family mealtime is a free-for-all, grab food and eat while you watch TV or do homework. To another it's always around the kitchen table, each family member talking about his or her day. To yet another it's the fastest food possible while speeding home from work or sports practices. Mealtime can be healthy or unhealthy, long or short, technologically enhanced or stuck in the 20th century. Mealtime is what you make it, so the question becomes, what should you strive to make it?
Mealtime is crucial to your family's mental and physical health. The first "E" in S.W.E.E.P. stands for "Eating" but mealtime wouldn't be a bad replacement. It's as much where, when, and how you eat as it is what you eat! (Hopefully not who you eat!) Here are some guidelines that I often talk with patients about when trying to figure out how they can optimize mealtime without completely rearranging their lives.
Eat throughout the day: We've all heard it before, "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day." Why do people say it? Because it's true! Breakfast gives us the energy we need to perform at our best each and every day. It's even more important to our children. Their growing bodies and developing brains need regular nourishment to properly mature. When a child skips a meal, she goes long period of time without eating, which can cause physical, mental and behavioral issues.
Along these lines, I encourage my patients to carry some sort of bar with them in case they are forced to miss a meal or just get struck with a bout of intense hunger. If we starve ourselves we become hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) which can lead to mood swings, dizziness and much worse. Even when you're dieting, make sure to eat small meals throughout the day!
Eat healthy: I'm not saying you should never eat birthday cake again. I'm simply saying, try to eat healthy when you can. It's good for you and it sets a good example for your children. Eating nutritionally balanced, home-cooked meals is a great place to start.
It's s group effort: I'm sure a lot of mothers are saying "Amen" right now, and they should be. Mealtime is a group activity. It's not mom's or dad's, or mom's and dad's, job to buy and make dinner (and pay for dinner!), set the table, pour the drinks, wash the dishes, and everything else that happens around mealtime. This needs to be a team effort and it is truly going to be more fun and enjoyable this way.
Set tasks: Billy sets the table, Jenny pours the drinks, Mom cooks and dad cleans. If everyone likes their task, keep them, if they don't, switch off by night or by week. Not only does this get everyone working, it gets your family in the same room for a few extra minutes, which is what mealtime is really about.
Create good habits: Habits get a bad rap! It seems like we're always talking about bad habits, but what about the good ones? Make mealtime a place for good habits. Create a secure, defined time that everybody knows is mealtime, even if it can only be once or twice a week. It can be a struggle, but try and teach your children table manners that they can take with them when they're eating outside the comforts of your kitchen. Talk about your day, tell stories, do whatever it is your family enjoys doing while eating as a family. If you're having trouble, try playing a mealtime game to liven things up. You can find a few good ideas, here.
Build traditions: Spending time together is special. You might not realize it as it's happening, but these are memories that you and your children will have forever. Whether it's holidays, Sunday night dinner or a random vacation day, have fun with mealtime! Get your extended family together, play games, try new foods, teach your children to cook! Pull out the video camera if the situation calls for it. Have fun with mealtime and mealtime will be more fun for your family!