Grease and tighten: How to Get Kids to the Dinner Table

Nov 2, 2009 by


My children having fun at the table, 1993.

It’s one thing to cook dinner regularly and sit down to it together at the table daily from the start of your life as a family. It’s another to come under the conviction that it’s something you should have been doing all along, when the children are five, ten or 15 years old.

How can we get kids used to sitting down and eating regular meals at the table when they’ve become accustomed to doing things altogether otherwise? Where do we begin?

There’s a Spanish expression, “engrasa y aprieta,” meaning “to grease and tighten,” that describes the proper attitude for the parent undertaking such a major family overhaul. While you restrict and require, you also make it enjoyable. Both parts are needed.

It’s similar to the way logic and emotion work together in a balanced personality.  It’s like the combination of the inspiring and fun “whole language” approach with the more technical and demanding phonics and drills that appears to be the most effective way to teach reading.

In physical fitness, as I’ve heard it explained, you need both strength and flexibility: somewhere between stiff, hard muscularity and wet-noodle floppiness. Likewise, in healthy relationships, we need to know how to balance acceptance and giving with honesty and personal boundaries.

Reforming family eating is another one of those times when neither extreme is the best approach, but a balance of both together.

Are you setting out wondering what reasons children could possibly find to want to sit down to a meal with their family? You are going to have to challenge them and make some demands. There are rules to follow. It requires building new, constraining habits. It requires them to sit still, be polite, be pleasant. They have to share and cooperate. It means kids no longer doing what they want but having to go along with the group. It could mean being faced with unwelcome new foods.

Replacing chaos with order can be a daunting task, especially if we introduce it as a grim crackdown, the end of fun times, and the beginning of hard discipline. The danger is of coming in like a strident reformer set on cleaning house: “We have to do this now.”

But let’s ask ourselves instead why a child would not want to eat dinner with the family.

While you’re going to have to make some demands to make it work, family meals can be naturally enjoyable.  Instead of the zealous enforcer, try coming in with a bit of a Santa Claus attitude and introduce it as something we get to do.  If you get them good and hungry, food will be at least appealing if not irresistible.  Interesting and pleasant interaction with the family adds to the motivation to get with the program.

Enough grease and that tightening will scarcely be noticed.

Coming next:

–          How parents’ attitude sets the atmosphere for family meals

–          Clear division of labor: where your job ends and the child’s begins at the table

Related posts:

The Best Way to the Stomach is through the Heart:

Having Trouble Getting Kids to Eat? Feed Them, but Cook for Yourself:

How to Make a Grocery List:

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 2 November 2009 / All rights reserved