How we are making family more important than food

What should we eat tonight? This is a question that I have always struggled with. I would spend time searching for that new cool meal; that meal the whole family would love. I have Pinterest boards and YouTube lists to tell the tale. I wanted my family to love what I cooked and to all eat together. Research says "When a family sits down together, it helps them handle the stresses of daily life and the hassles of day-to-day existence. Eating together tends to promote more sensible eating habits, which in turn helps family members manage their weight more easily."

In reality I was doing the opposite. My children weren’t appreciating my efforts and they were often rejecting them without even tasting the food. I was creating more stress by trying to get them to eat the things I was making. As a result we were eating together as a family even less, and we were often eating at different times and completely different meals.

A few months ago things started to change. Nathan and I had been reading a lot about minimalism. About how valuable it can be to decide what things are really important to you and making space and time for those things by simplifying other parts of your life. My husband also started to work from home, which meant he was around more and heard and saw more of the stress that food brought to my life. He started to push me to simplify how we ate. I didn’t take kindly to this at first. I wanted my food to be interesting and exciting, and I thought the children should want this to. Over time I realized that this was an amazing area to work on simplifying. Instead of letting food add stress to my life, I needed to learn how to look at food as what it is, energy and nutrition for me and my family, and use it as a tool to help connect our family.

We started out by creating some rules:

  • Meals are to be eaten at meal time. The kitchen is closed at all other times of the day.
  • Meals should be unifying, meaning we eat what is cooked, instead of each of us making whatever we feel like eating.
  • Doing the dishes is part of the meal.

To be fair, many of these rules were just as hard for me as they were for the rest of the family. For example over the years, from various diets I had been on, I had started to try to only eat when I was hungry, meaning that I would often eat at different times of the day from the rest of the family. Our new family rules meant that this was no longer acceptable. If I was asking my children to live by these rules then I had to set an example. Another habit I had created over the years was that if my children made something like Mac & Cheese for lunch, I wouldn’t be interested, and instead would make something “healthier” for myself. What I realized though, was that if I was expecting the children to eat what I cooked for a given meal, then I should eat what they made as well. One other change I realized I had to make was that if I wanted my children to eat the meals I was making then I had to be willing to be flexible. There were some meals I just needed to stop making since none of my children would eat them. Other meals I just needed to add or drop an ingredient or two to make it more universally acceptable to all of my children.

As we started down this path of simplifying meal time and trying to make it more meaningful it took a lot of effort to change habits. We created some cute little signs that said “Kitchen Closed” that we would put on the counters at the end of each meal. We put more effort in getting teenagers out of their room for lunch. This work has paid off though. Meals used to stretch over an hour or longer, now breakfast takes about 20 minutes for all 9 of us to eat and clean up. Lunch takes maybe 30 minutes. Supper depends on what we are eating. And most of the time, we are all eating together (we are still working on all sitting together at the same table 😉).

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As we made progress on the 3 rules listed above, and started to adjust the foods that we made based on what everyone, or most everyone, would eat, we ended up creating a couple more rules:

  • Toast and simple sandwiches are always okay if you don’t like what is being served. As parents we try not to take this escape hatch in order to set an example.
  • A smaller set of well liked dishes is better for family unity and less stressful than trying to create something new and exciting. Here is our list of regular meals we eat.

We certainly haven’t perfected family meal time. We still have children that balk at what we are eating. We still struggle at getting teenagers to come down for meal time. But we have certainly improved. We have more meals all sitting around the big dining room table. The kitchen stays cleaner. We use less dishes. I have less stress and tears involved with eating. And one benefit I wasn’t expecting was since instituting these more structured meals I have lost 5 pounds without even really trying. We have been very pleased at how beneficial these changes have been in our lives and hope that some of these ideas may help you and your families as well.

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The purpose of “The Couple Project” is to learn more about what makes a strong marriage or relationship. We share what we are learning, which ideas we are trying, and which ideas helped improve our relationship. We realize not everything that works for us will work for you, but we still hope you will find our journey valuable.

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