Do you tend to focus more on the food on your table, than on who is *around* your table? Listen in for tips on making the dinner table a place of connection (and fun!) with your kids. No gourmet food required!
Form a deeper connection with God, more empathic connection with other Moms, and more intentional connection with your child.
Welcome to the Connected Mom podcast, where we have conversations about connecting more deeply with God, more empathically with your fellow moms, and more intentionally with your child. I'm Becky Harling, your host, and today I have with me my illustrious cohost, Sarah Wildman. Hey, Sarah.
Hi, Becky. It's so good to be with you and our listeners. I think this is going to be a fun topic.
Yeah. So we're going to talk about dinner time and why family dinners are so important to staying connected to your child.
I'm excited about this personally, because I am not great at it, and I know from the research that it's super important. So I'm hoping that moms come away with some good tips on how we can make this a real highlight in our family.
Yeah. And just to be clear, we are not going to give you tips on cooking. Um, sometimes family dinner is just chickfila or a Costco rotisserie chicken. I already love this.
This is perfect.
These are my people.
Yes. And we want to say right from the beginning, this is a guilt free zone. So if you haven't been doing this well, no worries. There's always time to improve. But what I want to pitch to you is that the time around the dinner table can be a fun time. It doesn't have to be stressful. It can be fun. So we're going to try to talk about some ways that you can make your dinner time a bit more fun. How about that, Sarah?
I love it. I love it. I almost wonder if we should go. Okay. The kids are home from school. They're home from soccer practice. And why do you think there's such value in sitting down together and making space for that? Why do you think that is, Becky? As a seasoned mama and grandma?
Yeah. Right. I am seasoned, for sure. I think it's, um, a precious time, but I also think it's a sacred time. It's really interesting, if you read through the scriptures how often food or the table is put in there and revealed as some way that we can connect not only with our families, but also with God. Like, you think about the table of the Lord and taking communion on Sundays. That's a time where Jesus invites us to remember. If you read through the Old Testament, so many of the Jewish holidays were about remembering, and there were very specific foods. And so Jewish families would gather around the table and everybody would be there. Now, back in the Old Testament, they didn't have soccer practice or swim team or gymnastics or band. Right. So maybe for them it was a bit easier, but I still think it could be done today. And even in the New Testament, Jesus look at all the times Jesus sits down at dinner parties, whether at Simons or at different people's homes. Because there's this idea that when we're around the table, conversation can flow easily, and everybody, hopefully, will walk away more connected.
Yes. I love that. And I find that the difference between me maybe giving my kids a quick dinner at the countertop, which sometimes is just what happens. Right. And I'm multitasking. You're right. The level of connection, which we're all about here on this podcast, really is deepened when I'm sitting at their level right. And not just throwing chicken nuggets at them as I'm cleaning the dishes and all that stuff. That connection modeled at meal time seems to be a really good reminder to me.
Yeah. And I think we have to work. I know that's a hard work, but we have to work at keeping it fun, because I have been asked questions by moms before, like, well, dinner time turns into a disaster. Kids are groaning about the food. I'm saying, eat your food. You know, another kid is having a meltdown. I've got a toddler who won't stay in their chair, who's getting up and down and up and down. I would say try to keep it fun. For starters. Try not to make food the big issue. What do I mean by that? A lot of times, parents will go to the wall, and we've all done it again. This is a great zone. Right. But, uh, I remember one time making one of my kids eat peas, and she literally threw up on the table. So that's a mom fail. Right. Then I had to clean up puke. That kind of the dinner hour was lost. Right.
There are no deep conversations going on after that.
Right. I've lost everybody. So try not to make food the big issue, because the truth of it is sarah, too, there are a lot of eating issues that a lot of people bring to adulthood. I know I had eating issues, and without realizing it, really passed some of those along to one of our daughters who ended up with an eating disorder. And you don't want that. You don't want food to become a control game. So you can talk as a family about what you like and what you don't like, what kind of meals work best with your family, but offer grace. Don't turn meal time into a battleground, because, honestly, it is simply not worth it, from my perspective. We got to keep it fun.
Okay, so you've mentioned keep it fun a lot, and that gives me a ton of grace. Like, if the focus isn't eating everything on your plate, which there's studies about how that can be damaging to get, um, it's constantly changing. So I don't know that the studies are changing about a good connection of fun with your family. Right. That seems like that's probably pretty solid. So what are some ways that you would keep it fun? Maybe? Let's start with the little earth. What can you do to keep it fun when they're kind of small?
I mean, there are so many ways to keep it fun. Right now, as I'm thinking about this, I have a million ideas in my head, so let me try to sift them out.
One of the ideas that I did not do as a young mom, but that I have since learned about that I think is awesome, is you take a Mason jar and you fill it with Popsicle sticks. So one Popsicle stick might have tiger on it. Another Popsicle stick, you write the word forest. Another Popsicle stick, you write pizza, and you just write all these random words. And then each child takes two Popsicle sticks. And I've seen this done. It's hilarious. They just randomly show you their Popsicle sticks. Now, maybe they can't read yet. That's fine. This works well with preschoolers. And you say, okay, you have to make up a story about a, uh, tiger and a pizza. Okay, tell us your story. And kids have a blast with this, right? Because they create stories in their heads. And you're doing two things for them. You're encouraging fun at the dinner table, which, again, leads to deeper connection. You're also encouraging creative thinking and storytelling, which I was a former elementary school teacher, and those are huge skills for your kids to learn. So that's definitely a good activity for the dinner table. For the little yeah.
My six and eight year older would be all about that. So I'm excited to try it because one of my children is a little more creative on the fly than the other, so it will produce some laughs. Right? That's the fun part, is laughing together.
That's a really cool connection.
And then come up with a list of questions that you're going to ask your kids. Now, um, I have seen games, even, like places like on the Amazon, of questions you can ask kids. So there's plenty of ways to find questions. I believe in how to listen so your kids will talk. I gave lists of questions to kind of get you going with the conversation. But some of these questions can be great fun at the dinner table, especially if you, as the parent, answer the questions as well. So one of the questions might be, well, when did you feel like a superhero today? And then you ask your eight year old that question, and they might say, Well, I felt like a superhero on the playground today because I kicked a soccer ball and it went in the goal, and everybody cheered for me. And then it comes to you, when did you feel like a superhero today? And maybe you'll say, I feel like a superhero because I got all the wash done. Or I felt like a superhero because I gave my parking spot away at the grocery store to somebody who is in need. Or you could ask the question, when did you show somebody kindness today? I love that question because I think in this day and age. Our kids need to be trained in kindness and how important that is. And so get them to think through, you know, were they nice to somebody on the playground that maybe didn't have a friend? Did they invite somebody to play with them? Did they share their toys well, so get them to reflect back on their day and consider when they were kind today. So, Sarah, what's one of the great questions you've asked your boys at the dinner table?
Well, my firstborn, he is a bit competitive, so his excitement comes from recess time because that's when, um, things are really happening for him. He's excellent at school, but he loves that social time with his friends. So I love unpacking what that very social time for my child when he's at recess and how often the game kind of goes sour at some point. And so we kind of talk, well, how did you react to that? Or how did that go? I really, at this age, it has been working so well to talk about the golden rule and how would you have felt if that happened to you? How could you do that next time? And not a shaming thing, but for some reason, at six and eight, which are my boys'ages, they're able to articulate how they would want to be. Um, so there was a situation with a football game that went south, right. Charles didn't get the ball and it was this big thing. And then the next day, it was a wonderful day because he got the ball. And then we asked about the difference. OK, well, how did that make you feel? How could you include others in that game? So I know the conversations, they get deeper as we go, but sometimes it is just, uh, how they're interacting with their peers and their free time, right. And that can lead to a lot of good.
And I love those conversations because they really help your kids learn empathy. And when you model empathy as a parent, like, oh, I'm sorry that that child said that to you, how did that make you feel? Those are great questions so that your child can walk out empathy in their world. You know, another fun game that I like to do at the dinner table is, if you owned a restaurant, what would you call your restaurant and what would you serve as food and what would you never serve? Right. They might say, I would never serve broccoli at my restaurant. It's funny because I just played this game with a couple of my grandkids yesterday, and, uh, my sweet little granddaughter, Kindley is five. And she said, well, I would call my restaurant Kinley's Cafe, and I would sell cupcakes and bakery. She had a whole list of bakery items. And she might never serve broccoli or peas at Kinley's Cafe, but that's okay because you're having fun. Because here's the thing. Let's face it, as an adult. There are certain foods you don't like either, right. There are certain things I just won't eat. If I go out in public, I'll just say, no, thank you, or whatever. Right. So give your kids grace about that. One of the other benefits of family dinners is you can really work on manners without giving lectures, right? So, uh, you have your kids sit at the table and you say, okay, now, before we eat, we're all going to pray. What are you doing? You're teaching them to wait for just even a, uh, couple of seconds before they dive in and begin eating. And it gives them the poise to be able to wait when they're guested at somebody else's house. Or, you know, I remember one time I think I talk about this in the book, how to Listen to Your Kids Will Talk. I remember a season in our family where the kids were interrupting each other constantly, right? Everybody was very verbal. They all had a lot to say. And one day, Steve, my husband, came home from church where he was the pastor, and he had four sandwich baggies filled with $5 of dimes each. And he had gone to the bank and gotten for each kid $5 worth of dimes. And he said, okay, this week, here's what we're going to do. Every time you interrupt somebody, you have to take a dime out of your bag and put it in the center of the table. But at the end of the week, you can keep all the dimes that are left in your bag. So I think one child had maybe two dimes left at the end of the week, and another child probably had, like, 450 left at the end of the week. But it was a fun thing. And when we would interrupt, they would say, oh, well, where's your bag of dimes? Because you're interrupting, but let's put it in the table. But you want to make it fun. There's another family I know. Um, and I don't know how our listeners will feel about this, but I kind of love it because it's a little off word that you wouldn't normally encourage your kids to use. But I know one family says at dinnertime every night, what was your happy today? What was your crappy today? And what are you thankful for? And I kind of love that because it gives everybody the giggles. Mom is saying, what was your happy and what was your crappy? And then your kids can answer those questions. I was happy when this happened today. My crappy today was that I got three work assignments at school for homework, and here's what I'm thankful for. I'm thankful that I have soccer practice tonight. But that way you're teaching them to authentically, look back on their day and think through what were the high points, what were the low points, and what can I be thankful for? In spite of the highs and the lows.
That's really good. How does this pivot a little bit with teenagers? So I'm not a parent of a teenager, but I know this podcast season will be talking to people about teens. But how do you think the dinner table brings a new, uh, importance to teens, specifically? Put you on the spot here?
Yeah, no, I love that question. I think, for starters, I want to say this. Um, if you've built a strong connection when they're little, it's going to go better in their teen years, and you don't want to be picking at them and correcting all the time. Again, something we say here is focus on connecting over correcting. It's easy to correct, right? Um, chew with your mouth closed. Don't interrupt. Make your bed, all the things right, but curb that a little. The teen years are tumultuous at best. And so use the dinner table to affirm your team. Use the dinner table to bring up honest conversations about things your teens are really facing. Like, I remember, uh, one of our teens had to write a term paper or a paper for her history, um, class on a world social problem. Well, Steve kind of loves that, my husband. So he said, well, let's talk about AIDS. And he opened this whole conversation with our two teen daughters who were around the dinner table that night about AIDS is a problem not only here in America. It's a problem in Africa. And what do you think the church should do about AIDS, and what do you think is our responsibility to do something about AIDS, and what can we do to help people by, uh, treating your teens like they're intelligent people, um, and asking them what they think you should do? One of my favorite authors is, uh, Bob Goff. Everybody recognizes that name. And, um, I think he did this before his kids were teens, actually, where there was a big conflict happening around the world. And he sat his kids down and said, hey, you know, what questions would you like to ask world leaders? So the kids came up with questions about world leaders and what they would do to solve world problems. And they sent those letters to world leaders around the world and said, we'd love to have a conversation with you about this, so if you ever want to come to our house, come. And I don't remember the whole story, but it ended up being wildly successful. I believe that story, and I may not have gotten all the details straight sorry, Bob, but it's in his book, Love Does. And I just think that there's a lot of creative ways we can look at the problems in the world, draw our kids in, and get them to think about it, because they're going to be the world leaders in a few years. And so we want them thinking beyond the next video game or beyond the next TV show or beyond the next soccer game, how would you solve these problems?
That's really cool. I was thinking of another situation that when I was a child, we did have pretty consistent family dinners. And there was nothing better, though, than when mom and dad would invite others around the table. And I've, um, tried to do that. It's funny, there was a season of my life where we hosted a lot of missionaries that would come over, and it kills me because my kids were so young. They don't remember those conversations, and those were so great. But I think there's also that beauty of bringing, like, you're saying, I wish these world leaders would take them up on that. That'd be pretty cool and bogged off. But how did your table was it enriched when you brought other people around the table with you?
It's just hospitality is mentioned over and over and over in the New Testament, and it is a spiritual discipline for us, because when you're raising little kids I mean, I remember seasons in my life where Steve would call me and say, hey, I'm bringing somebody home for dinner. And I would quickly look around the family room and say, yikes. Here's my trick. I'll give you a quick hack for when you have unexpected company. Grab a laundry basket, pick everything up off the family room floor, throw it in the laundry basket, and put it in a room out of the way, right? And then close that door. But I think as far as hospitality, number one, it doesn't have to be perfect, right? It can be a spaghetti dinner, or it can be tacos, or it can be chickfila, or it can be, um, hot dogs or whatever you're serving that night for dinner and just opening your home. And I think that exercising hospitality really teaches your kids a lot. For starters, it can teach them about other cultures, even here in the United States.
And it can teach them, especially when you have, like, missionaries in, or you have foreign students in, or you have people from other countries in. Tell us about what dinner time looks like in your area of the world. What makes dinner time special? Um, another thing that hospitality teaches your kids is for them to reach out to their friends. I think a big value in our home was we wanted our kids friends to feel comfortable in our home. So when their friends came into our home, every family has different values, right. But in our home, it was like, I don't care what you eat, let's have fun around the dinner table. If you don't like what we're serving, uh, I'll go the extra mile and make something special for you, because I want you to feel welcome here. But what was I teaching my kids? I was teaching my kids have people into your home. And you know what's interesting, Sarah? That has paid off, because our son JJ and his wife Shana and our daughter Bethany and her husband Chris. They hosted, um, a whole string of what they called big table parties, where they would invite their friends, their friends kids, and they would have these big table dinners. They mixed their friends who were Christ followers, churchgoers with their friends who were not Christ followers, and churchgoers. And the conversations around these big table dinners were incredible, and it was a whole lot of fun for them. And they would just make all kinds of food, put it out, and invite people in. And I love that because I think that Jesus had a lot to say about hospitality, and so do the apostles. Um, if you read through the New Testament, uh, they said things like, entertain even strangers because you might be entertaining angels. And so you give your kids a broader perspective. And so make the family dinner table fun. You know, have fun there. Make it a place where you can laugh. I want to add one more thing. Sarah, too, is I think sometimes the family dinner table is at a restaurant. And I know I can hear some of our listeners groaning, like, oh, uh, how do you take little kids to a restaurant? Let me share an idea that we have done and that we still do now with our grandkids. Whenever we take little ones out to a restaurant for dinner, first of all, we have the preconversation, okay? So we're going to have to be a little bit well behaved in the restaurant. And Steve and I may joke about, can you do this in a restaurant? And the kids will say, no, can you do this in a restaurant? But then we have what we call silly restaurant games. And Steve, my husband, is a master at this. So we would take our four kids to restaurants and Steve would say, okay, we're going to have a competition. You know how in restaurants they have those little dishes with all the half and half creamers in them? Um, you know, we're going to see who can build the biggest tower with the half and half creamers. Or Steve will set up two forks with something on top, like maybe the menu, and he'll say, OK, now we're going to play tabletop soccer. You have to flick the creamer and see if you can get it through the goalposts, or it will be, how many sugar packets can you stack on top of this ketchup bottle before the whole thing falls over? And our kids have had a blast with these silly games, and it keeps them relatively well behaved until the waiter comes with the food.
That's a great tip. And, you know, sometimes it goes better than you hope, and sometimes it doesn't. But I think just continuing to try, I mean, there is nothing better than being a parent and having a stranger compliment you on your delightful children. Sometimes that's not the type of dinner. That happens.
But, you know, I mean, I do have to say this. Sometimes when we took our kids to restaurants, it went completely south.
I mean, I know there aren't all good stories here.
No. I remember being with this older couple. Um, I'm sure they're home with Jesus now because it was years ago, and we had just gotten back from the mission field, and they wanted to take us to this really fancy restaurant. The only problem was we had a two year old and a six month old or, uh, maybe seven or eight months, I don't know. Anyway, we got to the restaurant. All the way there, they were telling us how naughty these other kids were that were mutual friends of ours and theirs. We got to the restaurant and, um, my daughter was two at the time, and she kept sliding under the table. She thought that was hilarious. And I was trying to have the conversation while saying, come on, sit up here. And then our son, who was such a great baby, was wailing really loud and we were getting dirty looks from everybody in the restaurant. And, you know, Steve and I look back on that now and we just laugh. I don't think that couple ever took us out to dinner again. But you know what? It's okay, because we have a good relationship with our daughter and our son. You know, there are things that just don't matter for time and eternity. So don't nitpick at silly things. Keep it fun, uh, keep the conversation going. Play games when you can, and do everything you can around the dinner table to show your kids that you really, really love them. Because love and food are very tightly linked, actually. And so if your kids are sensing criticism all the time at the dinner table, that's going to come out in how they eat later. And you don't want that. So keep it loving, keep it fun. Ask, um, them questions and just have a good time with them. And just know that sometimes it's all going to fall apart. I remember nights at the dinner table where kids fell off their chairs or were crying or complaining because the food wasn't what they wanted. I remember other nights where we would laugh so hard that we would fall off our chairs, right? So it's just keep it light. And remember, you know, ultimately what they eat is not your goal. Ultimately, your goal is a deep, heartfelt connection with your child so that they really want to adopt your faith later in life. Hey, Sarah, we're almost out of time. Do you want to close us out in prayer and pray for all those moms out there that are frustrated over dinner time? And remember, moms, what you serve for dinner is not all that important. So if you need to go get a Costco rotisserie chicken, just go do it. You don't have to cook like some gourmet chef.
That's right. Because I feel like then if you start the tone as a stressed mom, that can't help with the connection, too, right, with what you make. So that's good. Thank you. I think that is a lot of gracefilled advice that I'm excited to try.
Thank you, Becky. Yes. I'd love to pray for our listeners. Let's pray. Heavenly Father, thank you so much for the things that you showed us in your word. The hospitality, the gathering with friends, the gathering with strangers, the gathering with the least of these, um, maybe even people that weren't looked on upon with good thoughts. And, Lord, we thank you for that example. And I ask that you would just help us to take one step in that direction of connection with our kids at the dinner table. Help us to truly listen. Help us to set a calm, stressless environment where fun can happen, where, like, Becky's reminded us, fun and laughter are really the main course instead of the food. And we thank you again for that example, and we know that you honor that time when we, uh, spend it in connection with you and with our kids. Thank you for that example and help us to, uh, take a step in that direction today. It's in your name we pray. Amen.
Amen. Hey, I hope you'll join us next time on The Connected Mom, where we have conversations about deepening your walk with God, connecting more empathically with your fellow moms, and more intentionally with your child. It's been a delight to be with you.