We know the numerous benefits of family meal time – better academic performance, greater sense of resilience, lower risk of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression; lower likelihood of developing eating disorders and lower rates of obesity, among others.

What’s more, new research out this week found that the more often families eat together, the stronger the impact. I wholeheartedly believe this theory. But most days, putting it into practice feels like June Cleaver idealism to me.

Can you relate?  Need simple suggestions for increasing your family meal time success rate?  Read on.

Stop family meal failure – lower your expectations

Many of us sabotage success by setting goals that are unattainable. If you are like us – two working parents with a sliver of a social life and semi over-programmed kids – planning and executing time together around the table can feel more like a chore than a celebration. So, we lowered our expectations and we now consider two to three weeknight family meals a grand slam.

Also helping to ease my mom guilt about these less frequent family meals, another study published earlier this year suggests the quality of the time spent together is paramount.  Connecting on a regular basis is what matters most – whether or not it’s around meal time.

Fun is not just the name of a popular band – it CAN happen in your kitchen

Picture this: I walked in the door very late one night after work, feeling (and looking) like I’d been flattened by a Mack truck; Macklemore’s Thrift Shop pumping and no one in sight.  As I was looking around, my husband and two daughters (ages two and five) jumped out of the bathroom and yelled, “SURPRISE – IT IS YOUR SPECIAL DAY! WE’RE EATING TUNA MELTS AND TOMATO SOUP AND LISTENING TO YOUR FAVORITE SONG!”  My mood was magically transformed and my now mega-watt smile was matched only by mad moves (from all) on our family room dance floor.

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Who doesn’t want to feel special?

I realized my five year-old, who originated the special day dinner concept, was trying to bring the excitement of birthdays to every day. Like most kids, she is birthday OBSESSED but the trick worked on thirty-something me.  And, if loving tuna melts and an impromptu dance party is wrong I don’t want to be right.

Make it happen at your house

Special day “bombing” is now in regular rotation at my house. Try our simple formula and add your own flair:

Prep

  • Special day honoree is informed a few hours in advance of dinner
  • They select food and beverage (from what’s available), music, dishes/flatware (this tricks them into… errrr encourages them to help set the table) and a centerpiece of their design (I am talking found objects like a fruit bowl, stuffed animals, action figures and school projects people – not a Sandra Lee-style tablescape).
  • Keep them occupied while you cook by letting them incorporate other favorite things – color, attire, etc.
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My girls dressed in head-to-toe red, my youngest daughter’s color of choice.

The Meal

  • EVERYONE eats and drinks what the special family member selected, enjoys their music and decor and LIKES IT!
My youngest daughter's favorite (pre made) lobster ravioli with RED peppers and light pesto cream sauce. Ten minutes total to prep and cook with a steamer bag of peas on the side.

My youngest daughter’s favorite (pre made) lobster ravioli with RED peppers and light pesto cream sauce. Ten minutes total to prep and cook with a steamer bag of peas on the side.

  • Toast the special day honoree with compliments from everyone at the table
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The total package. Complete with reindeer plates in March.

  • For older kids – consider having them choose conversation topic(s). This is a great way to make time together meaningful and it has the unintended benefit of jumpstarting their preparation for awkward business dinner small talk. It is never too early.
  • For younger kids – try a conversation formula, such as having everyone answer: What was the best part of your day; and the worst part of your day?
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That’s a wrap and a gal who feels special and satisfied.

If you have tips to make family meals fun and functional again – and the prep fast – share!

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  • Love this! It’s very inspiring and lots of cute ideas. Like the idea of making more realistic expectations!

  • lisa

    I am re-inspired! Thanks for reminding me that a mood and day can be transformed in moments by the most simple actions and activities with the most important people in our lives! I’m starting now … . Thank you

  • Kate G. Byers, MS, RD

    Reading this put a huge smile on my face! I love the idea of the “special day” bomb and reminds me that we have a red “You Are Special Today” plate that is stashed away in the china cabinet.

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  • This is such a great idea, M! I think my littles would adore the idea of a “special day bomb” as much as us parents. Thanks so much for sharing.

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