We’ve all been there. Those meal times where nothing seems to go right and eating well is on the bottom of our priority list. In fact, these sorts of meals may happen so often that it almost seems like eating in a stress-free environment is impossible.
Yet eating stress-free is incredibly important. Not only does the research show that eating slowly and in a relaxed environment can boost your mood, it can also be beneficial for the digestion process.
Families who eat together regularly often see benefits too. Research from Columbia University found that when children ate dinner regularly with their families, they were less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol and more likely to do better in school. In fact, the best adjusted children were those who ate meals with an adult at least 5 times a week.
Although 5 meals at home a week may not be doable for everyone, there are many ways to improve the overall eating experience you have either on your own or with those you love.
10 Simple Ways to Keep Meal Time Stress Free
Tip #1: Set Up an Environment That Works For You. Think about the best meal you ever had. Was it the best just because the food was amazing or was it the best because the environment was also appealing? Odds are, the enivornment in which you found yourself in played a large role in making that meal amazing. Try to recreate that meal at home. Perhaps its something as simple as lighting a candle or adding a vase of flowers to your table setting. Your environment during meal prep is also important. Keeping your kitchen organized, having the right ingredients on hand, and setting time aside to prep some of the meal ingredients ahead of schedule may allow you to have a more relaxed and productive experience in the kitchen.
Tip #2: Take a Few Minutes to Relax Before Stepping Foot in the Kitchen. Let’s face it. Our lives are stressful and we often bring that stress with us to the table. Before approaching dinner, or any meal we’re preparing for that matter, take a few moments to breathe. Leave that stress outside the kitchen and try to start anew. Make meal time your new fun time.
Tip #3: Create some Family-Friendly Ground Rules. In order for everyone to fully enjoy meal times together, its important to know what to expect and to allow everyone to be a part of the process. To minimize stress at meal times, consider coming up with a few ground rules that everyone at your table can abide by. Perhaps its turning off cell phones or having a set time for that one meal a week you are able to gather together. Or perhaps everyone gets to be in charge of their own part of the meal. Together, decide what a stress free meal time might look like and write down your own guidelines to ensure that what you envision takes place.
Tip #4: Have the Right Foods on Hand. Nothing is more stressful than walking into your kitchen, opening up your cupboard, and realizing you don’t have all the ingredients you need to make the dish you were prepared for. To minimize the risk of this happening, make sure you plan trips to the grocery store on a regular basis and have a few back up meals on hand just in case you don’t make it as planned OR forget an ingredient or two despite your best efforts.
Tip #5: Focus on Making Small Changes. If you’re reading this and are thinking that incorporating ALL of these ideas at once might be a good idea, be forewarned – you’re likely to still be stressed! Why? Because changing everything might be just as much work as before. Instead, focus on one small thing you and your family can do each week to not only make meal times more of a priority, but more enjoyable too. Maybe its setting a day an time each week that works for your clan or making your dining room a distraction free zone. Start with one small change and then continue to build up from there. Remember, eating well is not a sprint – its more like a marathon.
Tip #6: Divide and Conquer! If you’re usually the one doing all the work in the kitchen, its no wonder meal time is stressful! The more complicated a recipe, the more directions you’re likely to be pulled in too, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. Encouraging the rest of your family to get involved in the meal making process not only can make meal prep go faster, but it can be incredibly beneficial for everyone involved. Not only will it require older members of your family to get more familiar with cooking techniques and the foods they are preparing, it will also help younger members of your family become more open to the entire food prep process. To eat well, it is important to know how various ingredients compliment each other and how to read a recipe. And if everyone is involved in the process, odds are good that everyone will be a little more invested in the meal when its served.
It can also be beneficial to serve meals family style and allow your kids to serve themselves versus plating up their food ahead of time. It may be a little bit messier, but research has shown that this method allows children to better identify hunger and fullness cues which is important for maintaining healthy body weights.
Tip #7: Get the Conversation Started…And Keep It Going Strong! Meal times aren’t just about the food. They are also about the relationships you build. To keep your environment stress-free, make sure your conversations stay positive. Avoid scolding and criticizing – instead focus on positive interactions, moments, and experiences.
If you aren’t quite sure how to get the conversation started, consider having a few conversation starters at the ready. Having everyone go around the table sharing their best moment of the day is a great place to start. Or consider playing a game. If you have young children, playing a game of “I Spy” can be a lot of fun and an opportunity to get them excited about the foods they are about to eat. For older kids, asking “Would You Rather” questions can be a lot of fun as well.
Tip #8: Get Some of the Work Out of the Way On Another Day. When you have a full meal to prep, it can be a stressful and daunting task – especially if you’re already famished and just want to eat something. To reduce stress and make meal time more manageable, try to prep some of your meal in advance. You may even find that when you schedule a separate prep time during a non-hectic part of your day or week, that cooking is rather enjoyable! Even if your prep time is late at night while everyone else is sleeping, consider what works for you in your current schedule. Even prepping just a few of the ingredients ahead of time can make meal prep before you eat incredibly less hectic.
Tip #9: Schedule Your Meals, But Be Flexible. To minimize the stress that often comes with having family meals, we often settle for convenience. This means less meals together, more meals away from the dinner table, and often less nutritious options too. But you don’t have to leave the table to leave the stress behind. Incorporating these tips can be helpful, but in order for them to work, you have to have family meals on the calendar to begin with. Although having all meals together may not be realistic, odds are you can find room in your schedule for at least one or two meals a week. They don’t have to be dinner either – perhaps its easier for your family to wake up a bit earlier to have breakfast together on the weekends. Start small, think big.
After your meals are scheduled in, its okay to be flexible too. If something comes up or if you don’t have the right ingredients on hand, make sure you have a plan in place for those occasions too.
Tip #10: Celebrate the Little Things. The best way to ensure success is to make one small change at a time and to continue to build up from there. Not only will this make change more manageable, but it also allows gives you more opportunity to celebrate. As your family continues to work towards stress free meals, keep track of the changes you make and the results you see. Consider making a challenge board and award prizes for the little accomplishments – like trying a new vegetable, setting the table, or even turning off cell phones.
Meal times should and can be enjoyable. Figure out what a healthy, happy meal looks like for you and your family and start working towards that today.