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How you can stress less about family meals

Joanna Kessler By Joanna Kessler

Family eating dinner outside

Getting a healthy dinner on the table is tougher than it sounds, especially on a weeknight. But if you change your point of view — focusing less on the menu and more on togetherness — mealtime becomes much more enjoyable. “Family mealtime is about communication,” says Lynn Borteck, a licensed clinical social worker with Aetna. “The key is not the meal: It’s the connection and bonding that really count.” Read on for some hard-earned wisdom that can make any meal taste sweeter.

Don’t feel guilty about ordering in.

I love the evenings when we order pizza or pick up a rotisserie chicken and prepared side dishes from the market. A window of time opens for us to go play outside after I get home from work — precious minutes that would otherwise be spent chopping vegetables and checking the oven. Even small changes to your usual work/dinner/bedtime routine can be more uplifting than you’d think.

Relax about the clean-plate club.

My daughter announces she’s not hungry for dinner and refuses to touch her food — again. I’ve had to learn to take a deep breath and not worry so much about it. My biggest concern was whether she was getting enough nutrition. Then I learned that pediatricians advise parents to keep the big picture in mind: It’s okay if your picky eater rejects everything but pasta at dinner tonight, as long as she gets a variety of foods over the next few days. Now I know that my daughter will eat when she’s hungry and over time get what she needs to develop and grow normally.

Get the family involved.

My daughter loves to use our salad spinner. And my husband’s knife skills make him a world-class onion chopper. Think about getting your posse to help with meal planning, shopping, cooking and cleaning up. It may not make the process faster or easier, but it will keep everyone too busy to complain (much). Plus, it’s a great way to build kids’ confidence, teach them about healthy ingredients and encourage them to be more adventuresome about tasting new foods.

Find just 15 minutes.

Many parents have busy schedules — kids, too — and dinner can't always be a shared affair every night. If school activities or work commitments make a sit-down meal hard to swing, then you may have to eat at different times. “Family dinner symbolizes a time to talk, listen, brainstorm and support each other, but there are other ways and places to do this besides the kitchen table,” Borteck says. “Family members can share during carpool rides, grocery shopping, doing chores together, or over milk and cookies before bed.”

Troubleshoot your stress triggers.

My mother once suggested I set the table earlier in the day, and it’s made a surprising difference. If it seems trivial, pay attention to how often you have to jump up during dinner to grab forgotten napkins, cups, condiments, and so on. For working parents, table-setting is a great chore to assign to an older child or babysitter.

What are your stress triggers? If the sound of kids bickering sets you off, music might lighten the mood. Ask the kids to create a dinnertime playlist that includes their favorite songs as well as yours.

Little hacks like these can bring peace back to family mealtime. Because healthy meals are only partly about what you serve, and enjoying your time together is good for body and soul.

About the author

Joanna Kessler is a lifestyle writer and editor based in New York. She is an avid yogi and believes this is the year she'll finally conquer the crow pose.