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Making the Most of Dinnertime
By Susan Newman, Ph.D.

Picture Norman Rockwell, the classic American painter, alive today and commissioned to paint a scene of our generation's family dinner. Would it be of paper-wrapped peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches strewn on a minivan's backseat? Or of your young son or daughter trying to swallow a sandwich whole while running onto the soccer field for practice? Would it be of you standing in front of the freezer choosing from an overwhelming assortment of TV dinners? Or would it be of your husband, tired from a long day at work, eating leftovers or take-out alone under a single kitchen light?

I think Mr. Rockwell would mourn the decreasing reliance on dinner ritual-once a sure way for family to connect and bond. Bill Doherty, University of Minnesota professor and founder of Putting Family First, notes that "the number of families eating together has declined by one-third since the mid 70's." It seems the privilege of sharing a daily home-cooked meal has become reserved for a narrow few…perhaps only those who turn off their telephones and televisions and schedule nothing for the early evening hours.

More than Mom's Pot Roast

A sit-down meal brings much more to the table than just Mom's pot roast. The dinner table is a remarkable forum for family talk, for discovering what is going on in your children's lives. Children's vocabularies are broadened from exposure to your grown-up conversation with your spouse. And when you include them in the conversation, children feel their parents are interested in and value what they have to say.

On the whole (and in the long-run) everyone's diet is relatively healthier with a home cooked meal because you know the importance of Vitamin E and how not to make broccoli taste like The Nightmare. Atkins experts believe the family dinner is one of the most essential factors associated with children having a nutritious diet. They learn to eat more fruits, vegetables, grains, and vitamin-rich foods. You'll be giving your children the knowledge to make healthier eating choices a habit outside your home as well and in the future.

When Dinner is a Priority

Without question families are finding it increasingly difficult to be together at dinnertime. But, that doesn't mean they don't want to be. According to a USA Today poll, 70 percent of working men are willing to give up some pay for time with their families. Once dinner becomes a priority on your whole family's schedule, here are some tested ways to make the most of being together and to make family dinner a tradition everyone benefits from and enjoys. As dinners become a routine part of your family culture, young children begin to feel important because they are contributing and/or being treated as the special people they are:

Double Desserts -- Once a month or if you happen to have enough, shock your children by announcing double dessert night.

Assistant to the Chef -- You'll see more of your child if you enlist his services to fill the bread basket, carry dishes to the table, fill the salt and pepper shakers, or wash the lettuce.

Candlelight Dinner -- Once every few weeks, put fresh flowers on the table, light dinner candles, and take a moment to express gratitude that you are a family.

Breakfast for Dinner -- Unusual enough to be remembered and especially easy when time is short. Serve a dinner of waffles, pancakes, French toast or another typical morning meal such as bacon and eggs.

Tuesday-Ben's Night -- Assign each member of the family a night that he is
"responsible" for dinner. Everybody helps with the preparation. Even a four-year-old can take hot dogs out of the package, tear lettuce leaves for a salad, or pour chocolate sauce on ice cream.

What's Cooking? -- Cook something with your child at least once a month- cookies, muffins. Simple recipes and prepared mixes are good choices for children who usually can't wait to eat whatever they make.
Note: Invest in a children's cookbook to make cooking more interesting for your young chef.

Pizza Party -- Buy prepared pizza curst (Italian pizza bread) from your supermarket or only the dough from your local pizza parlor. The children punch down the dough and pull it into shape. Have them spread their favorite toppings and the pizza is ready to bake.

May I Take Your Order? -- Transform the kitchen into a restaurant and assign everyone different roles-owner, chef, waiter, customers, cashier-and the kitchen becomes a learning environment.

Best and Worst-- Go around the table and have each person tell you what was the best and worst part of his day. Parents respond, too...

"Old fashioned" dinners along with "old fashioned" talk go a long way in connecting with children and bonding the family. Prolong the experience with the promise of a game of Chutes & Ladders, more work on a puzzle, or turn on the radio and dance in the kitchen for a few minutes before or after everyone helps with the clean up.

Just the ritual of dinner together can so easily become a fond memory of growing up for your children. So spread the word that dinner is not optional in your house and bring the family together on as many nights as you possibly can.

For more ideas on building bonds with your children, see Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day.

Social psychologist Susan Newman, Ph.D. teaches at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and is the author of twelve books, including the best-selling Little Things Mean A Lot: Creating Happy Memories with Your Grandchildren, Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only, Never Say Yes to a Stranger: What Your Child Must Know to Stay Safe and most recently Nobody's Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship with Your Mother and Father. She is a member of the American Psychological Association and available for workshops on parenting and family relations issues. For more information on Susan and her work visit her website at www.susannewmanphd.com and www.parentingbookmark.com.

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