Years ago, the director of a preschool told me the highest predictor of good SAT scores was whether a family ate dinner together. I have no idea if this is true or not. However, I do know that eating meals together is helpful for many reasons. In this blog, I’ll discuss four ways that having mealtimes together help our kids: 1) self-help skills, 2) a sense of belonging, 3) manners & social skills, and 4) academics (for example language and mathematics). Please notice that I am advocating sitting down together for meals but am not saying that the meals need to be homecooked, fancy, or gourmet.
Self-help skills don’t just happen, they need to be taught. Yet, teaching should be as natural as possible. What better place and time than at the dinner table can a child learn the following:
- Feeding oneself
- Pouring from a pitcher
- Opening a carton (e.g., milk)
- Cutting food
- Wiping up spills
- Cleaning the table
- Taking care of the trash
- Setting the table
The following are some examples:
With a little bit of patience before dinner time (maybe working with only one child at a time), you may teach a child how to set the table. Setting one place setting for one person teaches an important math skill, 1:1 correspondence.
After dinner, you have an opportunity to teach a child how to “bus” plates. (You may want to use plastic plates for a while.) This helps children become responsible. (Plus, as a side benefit, having your children able to set and bus the table will be a time-saver for you in the long-term.)
During dinner, there’s so much to do.
Children naturally love being independent. In some ways, the younger they are or the more challenges they have, the more they desire this but don’t have an opportunity to experience it. So, children sometimes learn they can’t do things.
For example, pouring, wiping up, and cutting. Pouring teaches math (conservation—how the liquid changes from the shape of the pitcher to the shape of the cup), so give it a try. I’ve visited several dollar stores and found mini plastic pitchers (about 6 inches) with screw-on tops that are very child-friendly.
Wiping up spills also teaches about science (absorption), so why not have a towel nearby for such mishaps and reframe these occurrences from “Oh no, I’m naughty” to “I can help clean up.”
A Sense of Belonging
Parents want siblings to get along, and it will help it they have a chance to know each other. Mealtime provides an opportunity to make special family traditions. For us, it was pizza on Saturdays. Make your family unique. Memories help bond families together.
Manners & Social Skills
When do children learn to eat with others? This is a rhetorical question, of course. I am suggesting at mealtime they have a chance to learn such skills as:
- Passing food (if served family style)
- Waiting for one’s turn
- Helping oneself to a single serving
- Making choices amongst foods
- Requesting a second helping
- Waiting to be excused from the table
- Helping another sibling or allowing another sibling to be helpful
- When to say “Thank you” and “You’re welcome”
Wouldn’t it be nice to go out with your children and have them know what to do?!
I’ve mentioned a few examples of math above. You may also do “math talk.” Three examples of math talk are:
- If I give you my roll, how many will you have?
- If you ate two of your fries. How many would be left?
- You have one piece of corn on the cob, your brother has one, and Dad has one. How many are there altogether? If Dad eats his, how many will be left?
The more that children have the opportunity to communicate, the more their language skills will grow. Mealtimes are perfect for this. Also, mealtime is a perfect time to create a need, which naturally leads to the desire to communicate.
Creating a need:
Our daughter was adopted from China and was not talking at first. It took a friend reminding my husband and I (who were totally enamored with our toddler) to shut up, so she had to ask for more or whatever else she needed.
Make mealtimes work for your family. Keep them as simple and relaxed (and even fun), as possible. FYI, a dinner over 30 minutes for a young child probably won’t work so well. Take the time to enjoy what your child(ren) say. Keep a pad and pencil nearby and tell your child “that’s so cool I’m going to write it and date it so I’ll remember it.” Even keep a journal. We kept one in our family and I wish I recorded more into it. Now, we love reading about those occurrences we did record.
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