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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 26 March 2019

Master the tricky art of regularly dining together

Set an example by putting your phone out of sight at the dinner table

Offer titbits from your own day first rather than pepper kids with questions. Getty 
Offer titbits from your own day first rather than pepper kids with questions. Getty 

My kitchen shelves are piled high with cookbooks. I can pretty much track a decade of food trends from their brightly coloured pages: veganism, clean eating, paleo, nose-to-tail, low-fat, low-­sugar, no-sugar. The list goes on. But the one that holds pride of place is a squat brown book without a cover that contains few photographs.

My yellowing 1983 edition of Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course contains handwritten notes from my mother and grandmother; when I fry pancakes with the help of my children in the morning, for example, I turn to Delia’s basic pancake recipe. As much a family history as a cookbook, its survival on my shelves illustrates how sharing food is at the heart of family life.

Yet many struggle to sit down to eat together more than a handful of times per week, and when they do, TV dinners are commonplace and mobile phones are a constant distraction. According to research, parents who manage to shepherd their families into dining together are likely to encourage healthy eating, higher self-esteem and better grades from their children. If you would like to make dining as a family more often one of your goals this year, here’s a helping hand.

Create traditions

There are times when the prospect of preparing yet another evening meal feels like the straw that will break the camel’s back. On days such as these, it’s good to have a backstop meal that is easy to rustle up and that everyone loves. In our house, Thursdays are a particularly busy day with after-school clubs and a parent who can see the end of her tether as the weekend approaches, so Thursday is tacos night: my children think it’s a treat and it takes minimal preparation thanks to ready-made salsa and guacamole. Happy conversation and fun follow.

The family menu

Parents of picky eaters have little nostalgia for childhood mealtimes, having spent years serving bland foods laid out on a plate in such a way that one foodstuff does not “contaminate” another. The situation usually improves with age, but innovation still has the potential to lead to arguments and disappointment at dinner time. To play it safe, when I’m keen to cook something new, I always show my children a photo of the finished recipe so they’re prepared when it lands on the table. If there’s any doubt over whether they might eat it, I will have something simple such as a jacket potato as a back-up to stave off hunger tantrums. At the other end of the spectrum, if there is a favourite dish, keep it for special occasions, such as birthdays, to add to the sense of celebration.

Start small

Young children generally eat at the dinner table, and it’s whether mum and dad sit down for a 6pm dinner that’s the more pertinent question. As children get older, they are more and more likely to want to eat away from the table (and their parents). To begin, pick one night a week and make sure that everyone who has a seat at your dining table knows that Wednesday, for example, is family night and there is no excuse for skipping supper. Aim for three or four nights a week ideally.

Keep it light

The Family Dinner Project is an American non-profit organisation, with links to Harvard University’s social research lab Project Zero, which aims to promote family meals. Its website, blogs and newsletter are a great source of inspiration. Founding member, clinical psychologist and author Anne Fishel has a number of practical dos and don’ts to encourage stress-free family mealtimes: let your children pick the soundtrack; don’t disparage table manners or comment on how much anyone is eating; and, most importantly perhaps, don’t criticise the chef.

Banish mobile phones

A recent study by Illinois State University and University of Michigan Medical School found that verbal and non-verbal communication around the dinner table declined significantly when parents used their phones. Unsurprisingly, children’s behaviour also worsened as they tried to gain attention. Set an example by putting your phone out of sight at the dinner table, or better still, until the children are in bed.

Practise the art of conversation

There’s nothing less rewarding than trying to prise small talk from a monosyllabic teenager, but conversation is the glue that holds mealtimes together. Fishel has a number of tips about how to get the ball rolling on her blog, Food for Thought, including offering up interesting titbits about your own day first rather than peppering the kids with questions. Or, as she suggests, just be upfront: “I am so excited to see you and so interested in what you’ve been doing. Is there anything that makes it easier or harder for you to share some of your day with me?”

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Read more stories on parenting:

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How to speak to children about exercise

When it comes to healthy eating, lead by example

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Updated: January 12, 2019 06:02 PM

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