The beginning of a new year is often cause for evaluating the successes and failures of the past and resolving to make positive changes in our lives.
Lists of New Year's resolutions often begin with promises to stop smoking, loose weight or be on time. This year I would like to suggest another addition to the ubiquitous list: making time for family.
Although the kids would probably cheer for more TV time and trips to McDonalds, I would like to suggest another option, one that not only allows for quality time between parents and their children but also teaches important skills that will be used for years to come.
Food planning, preparation and clean up are great ways for families to spend time together. The best part is that there are appropriate jobs for everyone, from toddlers and teens to the captain of the football team or the school play diva. Best of all, when everyone is involved in creating the family meal, participation in the culminating event is usually more consensual.
Although allocating family time to create and share family meals may not receive rave reviews at first, it is possible and it can create many opportunities for family intimacy. After a few weeks of diligence, most families report fewer arguments, better communication between family members and a greater sense of unity and belonging. Here are a few tips to get you on your way:
1. Stand a united front. Children need to know that both of their parents are determined to make this change. If Mom and Dad aren't willing to make a few sacrifices to be home on time for family meals, children won't be either.
2. Plan a consistent meal time and stick to it. Flexibility is important, of course, but it needs to be an exception, not the rule.
3. Delegate responsibilities fairly, not equally. When children are involved in meal planning and food preparation, they feel an investment in the family meal. When all of my six children lived at home, each child was responsible for dinner one night a week. This didn't mean they had to do everything, but they got to plan the meal and make sure it was ready to eat on time.
4. Plan ahead. Meal planning must be finished before the weekly trip to the grocery store. I also found it helpful to keep my storage room and freezer well stocked. Keep extra milk and eggs on hand in case you have to make a quick substitution.
5. Make it fun. When children are young, they love to learn and are willing to try almost anything. I have been amazed at the aptitude of young children. Helping a child does not mean doing it for them while they watch. It does mean modeling behavior and helping children imitate your actions. If a few egg shells get into the pancakes, they can either be fished out or provide a little extra calcium. Safety is the main concern.
6. Be patient. Children need to see meal planning and preparation as a way to contribute to the welfare of the family, not as just another chore. Reminders will be necessary at first, but eventually family meals will be a way of life. And don't sweat the small stuff. Eggs drop and milk spills so what? You are creating family here. The goal is effectiveness, not efficiency. It is not really efficient to let a 3-year-old child make a cake for her dad's birthday. It takes three times as long and makes 10 times the mess. But, the change it makes in the life of the child can't be measured, and that is really what we are trying to do.
Janet Stocks teaches advanced foods and family meal management in Brigham Young University's Family Living department. She teaches advanced foods and family meal management.