Written by LeAnne Varenkamp of Dream Dinners – The Original Meal Kit Company
Yesterday, was one of those days. Laundry on the couch for the second (or third…) day, a sick toddler, trying to help with high school algebra… Add in the ongoing effects of the seemingly never-ending pandemic, and I pretty much felt like I wasn’t getting anything accomplished! Then, I snapped at my fourth grader. I was feeling “mom guilt” all the way.
So I needed to stop, take a breath, and remind myself about what’s important. As a homeschool mom with eight kids, I believe it is more important to be a parent and to connect with my children rather than get everything on my to-do list done.
Our job is to guide our children on their journey to becoming adults and to teach them how to navigate life when it doesn’t go as expected. We don’t get to choose our circumstances, but we do choose how to manage them.
Right now, we may see our kids all day long, yet we still need to pause and connect as a family, remembering who we are as a family unit. The family dinner is the perfect place to do that. There is something special about sharing a meal. It’s where everyone belongs and participates. It’s where we find joy.
Getting the family together at the same time and getting a meal on the table can be challenging in the best of times, let alone right now. As the owner of a Dream Dinners meal kit franchise, I’ve learned a great deal over the years about the importance of family meals. I’ve also picked up a lot of tips on how to make meals easier and more enjoyable to prepare.
Here are 10 tips to help you through the pandemic and in the future.
- Prioritize family mealtimes. Choose the ideal number of weekly family meals that makes sense for your family. Every family is different. The important thing is that you are being intentional. If work and school schedules make dinners hard, have family breakfasts or lunches.
- Avoid “food court chaos” and the temptation to make multiple dishes to keep everyone happy. Teach your kids to be concerned about others, not themselves. Each meal may not be their favorite, but they need to learn they don’t always get what they want. This also helps reduce “picky eater” problems.
- Engage the entire family in creating the menu and preparing the meal. As moms, we’re teachers and trainers, not servants. Involving the kids in the whole process, even budgeting, teaches them life skills. Start by having them with you in the kitchen during pre-school. At first, they help, but use the opportunity to train them. Soon enough, they can take the lead. With practice, junior high schoolers can make dinner on their own.
- Fix and freeze dinners in advance. Dream Dinners pioneered the fix-and-freeze meal kit concept nearly 20 years ago. Customers visit one of Dream Dinners’ 70 local kitchens where in about an hour they prepare a month of meal kits that are then frozen. (Due to COVID restrictions, kits currently are being made for customers by Dream Dinners’ staff and picked up or delivered.) You can use the same process to save a huge amount of time, especially if you involve the kids in the prep. Once they are old enough, they can thaw and cook the meals themselves.
- Coordinate meals with unit studies, especially unit studies covering history, world cultures, math, and life skills. For example, when studying the history and culture of Italy, create different meals from each region of the country. And look for meals with lots of measurements when your children are learning about fractions.
- Make meals fun! Eating breakfast foods for dinner while dressed in PJs or creating theme dinners complete with costumes and table decorations are great examples of turning mealtime into an enjoyable event.
- Enforce a “no device rule.” The average American right now is streaming eight hours of media content every day! In our house, all devices have to go into a basket and be turned off before everyone sits down. This way, everyone is fully present, and we are not allowing our devices to control us.
- Master the art of table talk. Good conversation begins not with speaking but with listening. The key to connecting with your kids is empathy. Work at eliciting their feelings. Show you care, and the conversation will flow.
- Curb the conflict. Choose your battles, focusing on what’s really important while avoiding defensiveness. Be respectful of your kids, no matter their ages, and encourage them to do the same. Teach them the power of saying, “I’m sorry,” and don’t be afraid to apologize yourself. Last, set – and enforce – a no yelling policy.
- Instill manners. Teaching kids to behave well is one of our most important – and difficult – challenges, especially at the end of a long day when we’re tired. Dinnertime, nonetheless, is a great time to reinforce kindness and respect and demonstrate good manners. A few suggestions: set limits on acceptable conversation topics and establish house rules, such as washing hands before dinner and asking to be excused before leaving.
Homeschooling is all about teaching children to run on their own batteries. Too often, moms try to do it all when we should be teaching kids how to be self-sufficient and how to contribute to family life. Involving them in dinner, from planning through clean-up, is a wonderful way to accomplish this. It also creates opportunities for older children to grow by guiding younger siblings through the meal preparation process.
Perhaps even more important is the role dinner plays in building up each family member and helping each one find a place of belonging and security, especially during such a difficult time.
I strongly recommend The Hour that Matters Most: The Surprising Power of the Family Meal, co-authored by my dear friend Tina Kuna, who founded Dream Dinners with Stephanie Allen. It’s available here on Amazon.
Stay well and bon appétit!
Hi, I’m LeAnne Varenkamp! I’m married to my kindergarten sweetheart, and I am mom to eight awesome kids. I also work outside the home for a great company whose mission is to help families gather around the dinner table. As a family, we have a heart for community and serving others, and we are always on the lookout for ways to encourage people to thrive. Right now, our homeschooling adventure includes restoring our 100+ year old farmhouse. For more information about Dream Dinners, please visit my website.