Like me, some of my readers may have grown up without meals at a table. For those of us who grew up watching family meals on shows like “Leave it to Beaver,” and “The Brady Bunch,” longing to build the experience into their own future family culture, I have decided to share my tips and experience.
How does one make the cultural leap from eating all meals (if there were meals) from your lap at the TV to weaving a routine of eating together at a table, without distractions?
First, I realized you need to have a dinner meal every day. I find it hard, though, to stick with routines. Having had none when I was young, I find it exceedingly difficult to maintain a routine for anything. Even for family meals, which are a high priority for me, I can slag and waiver if the executive functioning needed feels overwhelming. I may adopt a new routine and *love* it, then fall off the wagon and abandon it completely after a few days or weeks. I might leave everyone to find leftovers while I spend time trying to complete an article and hope they don’t notice my absence. This is especially true if there is any barrier to success, like having a difficult or tedious reset-system on a ‘to-do’ list app. I have found that setting an alarm that goes off daily has made a big difference. My “make dinner” alarm is set for 5 pm every day. With the daily alarm, we are guaranteed to have enough time to thaw supplies and cook before our hopeful dinnertime of 6:30. Or we have time to order food, if budget and schedule dictate.
Another issue many people have is what to eat. We couldn’t really have the same food every time and maintain interest for everyone. If you’re trying to build a new culture in an existing family system, the switch from purchased meals or packaged foods can be eased if you can make better meals at home, but that difficulty is exacerbated for people with childhood trauma and neglect because those things are often accompanied by a lack of skills and experience. The best meals from my childhood involved white bread and Spaghetti-O’s, so I longed to try making meals my childhood peers complained about: meatloaf and steamed Brussels sprouts sounded like magic, tuna casserole sounded like heaven, and homemade soups and stews sounded like myths.
I began trying to cook for my family when I was 14. I completed a course on Home Economics, which gave me a boost of confidence in the kitchen, and taught me about basic nutrition. Unfortunately that did not translate to all my meals turning out well. After many disasters that did *not* lead to any property damage, I managed to achieve a short-list of about a dozen meals I can consistently make which my children will eat. If you are one of millions who “don’t know how to cook,” I hope you will find it in yourself to be brave and look for lists of 20-30 minute meals you can make with everyday-ingredients. YouTube is full of easy-to-follow videos (with ingredient lists in the description) where you can follow along making simple meals. Family meals do not have to be extravagant but they should include a source of protein, at least two colors of vegetables, and some grains or starches.
Even with some skill and experience, and a schedule that worked, I struggled to solve the primary complaint I hear from all home-cooks. This is that *deciding* what to cook for meals each day is harder for them than *cooking* the meals each day. I tried menu-planning but that meant having to do all the brain-work for a period of time only to have to adjust when needed ingredients were not in-stock or when life left me with less time than I needed for a particular meal prep. This meant it did not save me time in the end.
What worked for me is that I developed a set of index-card meal ideas which can be shuffled to create a plan for the week in seconds. I created a list of items I keep on hand (because we are blessed with an income that supports such a plan). The ingredients can be used to make various meals. This is a similar strategy to having versatile clothing items that work well in different ways when paired with accessories, jeans, or slacks. Ground beef can be turned into chili, burgers, meatloaf, tacos, goulash, Sloppy Joes, Bolognese, Stroganoff, or meatballs. Chicken can be baked, fried, boiled, shredded, or made into cold chicken salad. A whole chicken can be used for several meals before the bones become broth (best with added vegetable scraps from a storage bag in your freezer). Rice, pasta, potatoes, onions, eggs, spices, and frozen vegetables can turn into a meal all by themselves without much prep. I can make simple, nutritious meals for most days in around half an hour. If I know I won’t have much time for meal prep due to appointments or other issues, I can set up a meal in a Crockpot in the morning and have it warm and ready by dinner.
Once I have the food decided upon, manage my schedule enough to make sure it’s ready at about the same time each day, and actually do the work to prepare it, how do I get my family to join in?
Well, I ask them. I make sure we have a table and chairs to sit at. I (at first) set the table and make it easy for them to sit down and enjoy the meals. I tell them it is important to me, and ask them to sit and eat with me without distractions. Once everyone gets in the habit of leaving books, toys, and devices to share a meal every evening, they can be given tasks like setting the table, moving food to the table, calling others to join us, and cleaning up. We have each child wash one dish for each year they are old.
To keep conversation going and engage everyone we try to have prompts ready. Sometimes we ask everyone to share a positive thing they think of. Recently, a friend of mine gave us a “chat Pack” to use. It consists of a stack of cards with conversation starters on them. We sometimes pull out a card and take turns responding to the prompts or listening to everyone else. Family meals are finally starting to feel like a positive and ‘normal’ part of our culture. They give us the opportunity (pre-Covid at least) to invite others over to share these times with us without it being a special event.
Connecting is a part of our family culture that feels good to us all, and heals those parts of me that wished for connection when I was young. I would love to hear from you about how you make ways to connect with your people. Please leave a comment below with your favorite strategies and tips?
Cooking rules I created for myself:
1) Read the whole recipe before you decide if you are ready to try it.
2) Verify that you have all the needed ingredients and tools before starting.
3) Set Timers.
Rules for the table:
1) No books, toys, or devices.
2) Take what you want, and eat what you take.
3) Aim for at least 4 (natural) colors of food on your plate at every meal.
4) Take small portions to begin with and then take more if you are still hungry.
5) Drink fluids (Water, milk, juice or tea).
Some great videos of simple meals to prepare: