3 Ways To Empower & Connect With Your Kids at Dinnertime

If you have followed A Fostered Life’s blog or YouTube channel for any length of time, it’s likely you’ve heard me emphasize the importance of empowering children. Two things children need most—all children, but especially children who have a history of trauma—is to feel empowered (or a sense of personal agency) and to feel connected (or a sense of belonging). This is the big takeaway I got from Positive Parenting Solutions (along with a fantastic arsenal of empowering and connecting tools), and when we began to embrace this concept and look for ways to empower and connect with our children on a daily basis, we saw a real change in our children’s relationships with one another and interactions with us.

One area of home life that is bursting with potential for empowering and connecting with kids is dinner time! In the midst of our hectic lives, with family members coming and going, the dinner table can be such a sacred space for a family.

Here are a few ways to empower and connect with kids at the dinner table.

Put your child in charge of dinner. About once every week or so, a child in our home is in charge of dinner. (Yes, this includes our five-year-old.) I communicate that child is in charge of dinner that night and work with them ahead of time to plan their meal. Sometimes that means looking at simple recipes, and other times it just means showing them a visual guide (keep reading) and letting them get creative. I encourage whichever child is in charge to delegate roles to others in the house. Sometimes they do, but I have one child who wants to do it all himself (or only have me help).

Give them a visual guide, then take your hands off the wheel. We use this one from Eastern Virginia Medical School, which is for omnivores. We have also used this one from Pick Up Limes, which is especially for vegans. This tool is a fantastic way to teach children how to have a well-balanced diet without them realizing you’re trying teaching them something 🙂 Giving a child a picture like this and letting them pick each component, with minimal input, is so empowering. Children are very perceptive, and given the opportunity, they will rise to the challenge! Some of the child-prepared meals we have had include spaghetti with meatballs and tossed salad, waffles with turkey sausage and sliced bananas, and fried chicken with tossed salad and bread. They look at the chart and choose foods that they can plug in to each section. It makes them feel very important and very grown up.

DIY Dinner. Another really simple tip for empowering your kids at meal times is to set out a bunch of ingredients and let them fix their own meal. Two meals that are really conducive to this are Taco Bowls (“Taco Tuesday” anyone?!) and Sandwich Bar (“Can you say charcuterie?”).

For Taco Bowls, everyone gets a scoop of rice in a bowl and then they get to add their own toppings from the bowls on the table: taco meat (vegan meatless crumbles work too), beans (this is the recipe I use in the Instant Pot), shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, shredded cheese, chopped avocado, corn, salsa, and taco sauce are our go-to taco bowl fixins. Sometimes I also put a bowl of tortilla chips out to scoop the bowls with. The kids love having independence and deciding what goes into their bowls!

For the Sandwich Bar, I just put out a basket of bread, a plate of lunch meat and cheese, lettuce, sliced tomatoes, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jam, and condiments like mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup. I usually also put out some veggies for dipping, like carrot sticks, cucumber slices, and mini sweet peppers. Each kid loves making their own sandwich, and it gives them a sense of personal empowerment.

Engaging conversations around the dinner table. Interacting around the dinner table helps promote the development of communication skills, interpersonal skills, and emotional bonding. According to The Family Dinner Project,

researchers found that for young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read aloud to. The researchers counted the number of rare words – those not found on a list of 3,000 most common words – that the families used during dinner conversation. Young kids learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks aloud. Kids who have a large vocabulary read earlier and more easily.

IT’S SCIENCE: EAT DINNER TOGETHER, Anne Fishel, Ph.D, The Family Dinner Project

Dining together as a family is hugely important, for so many reasons. For example, according to this article from The Scramble, “kids and teens who share family dinners three or more times per week…

  • Are less likely to be overweight
  • Are more likely to eat healthy food
  • Perform better academically
  • Are less likely to engage in risky behaviors (drugs, alcohol, sexual activity)
  • Have better relationships with their parents

This is important for all children, but it is especially helpful for children who may be experiencing developmental delays due to early childhood neglect and trauma. Dinner tends to be a favorite time of night for our kids in foster care. They love the predictability and togetherness of it.

There are other ways to empower kids at dinner time. Giving them each jobs to do, inviting their input on menu planning, respecting their choices about what and how much to eat, and avoiding power struggles around food all contribute to their sense of empowerment. We host a dinner party every Monday, which gives our kids opportunities to get to know other people in the context of hosting a meal. However you go about it, look for ways to connect with and empower your kids at dinnertime.

I promise, you’ll be so glad you did!

Image via Canva.com

Baked Potato Bar!

Last Monday, our family was in Virginia Beach with my parents and my oldest brother’s family of five. We each had a cabin on a little dead-end street in a beautiful state park, and we all took turns making dinner for one another.

Of course I volunteered for Monday 🙂 #MondayNightDinnerParty

I wanted to do something that would be relatively simple and healthy that could be tailored by each person according to their dietary preferences (one does not eat meat, one does not eat dairy, etc.) I went to the grocery store in hopes that something there would inspire my menu, and discovered that baking potatoes were on sale. Score! I decided to do a Baked Potato Bar, and it was a huge hit!

Here’s how I did it, from start to finish:

Grocery List:

12 baking potatoes

1 package of fresh chives

1 yellow onion, sliced

1-2 c sliced mushrooms

1 can of chili (I used Amy’s Organic Chili with Vegetables—not spicy!)

1 package frozen or fresh broccoli crowns

1 package of shredded cheddar cheese

1 container sour cream

1 container of spreadable butter

coconut oil

salt & pepper

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 400.

Scrub each of the potatoes clean and pat dry.

Scoop out a teaspoon or so of coconut oil, rub it all over your hands, then rub each potato all over with the coconut oil. Get more oil on your hands as needed. Place potatoes in a baking dish or cookie sheet, leaving room between each potato. Poke each potato with a fork two or three times if you want to (I do because my mom always did, but I’m not sure what purpose it serves!) Liberally salt and pepper the potatoes in the pan.

Bake for 60-90 minutes. (Note: there might be some smoke at first as some of the oil burns off the potatoes. That’s normal and will stop unless they’re actually on fire!)

Meanwhile, heat a skillet to medium and add about a teaspoon of coconut oil. Sautée your onions until clear, then add the mushrooms and continue to stir/sautée them until they’re cooked. Remove from heat.

Steam your broccoli (stovetop or microwave, your choice).

Warm the chili just before serving (again, stovetop or microwave).

Chop your chives.

Presentation:

Set out the toppings, buffet style. I left the sour cream and butter in their store-bought containers, but if you wanted to get a bit fancier, you could, of course, put them in nice bowls. I did set out the cheese, chives, chili, and onion-mushroom sautée, but left the broccoli on the stove so it would keep warm.

Set out the potatoes.

Set out a stack of plates and a jar of utensils.

Call everyone to dinner.

This menu is especially appealing to kids, because they love to fix their own food! It was so fun to watch each of them get creative with what they put on their potatoes.

This menu is especially appealing to adults, because there was zero whining or negotiating about who would eat what or how much. Oh, and also it turns out adults like to have the freedom to fix their potatoes the way they like them too 🙂

NOTE about using coconut oil:

I am pretty much obsessed with coconut oil these days. I use it on my body, on my kids’ bodies, to brush my teeth, and for cooking. I love how it smells and how it tastes, but note that it does add a definite flavor to your food when you cook with it (at least, the kind I buy does). So if folks in your midst don’t like coconut, or have coconut allergies, substitute olive oil, which is what I used for baking potatoes for years.

NOTE about baking potatoes:

I like the skins crispy. Some people like them softer. If you prefer softer potato skins, wrap them in foil before baking. Otherwise, leave them just oiled, not foiled, and they’ll be deliciously crispy. 

ANOTHER NOTE about baking potatoes:

This would also work well with sweet potatoes! Perhaps you’d choose different toppings, but sweet potatoes or yams make great baked potatoes as well, and add a bunch of good nutrients to boot!

# # #

Y’all, this is one of the simplest, crowd-pleasingest menus you could do. There is almost no actual “cooking” involved! It’s mostly prep! And you could easily involve your kids in the prep if you wanted to (mine were too busy running around with their cousins this time, but other times, they’d be right there with me, chairs pushed to counters).

What would you add to the menu? Do you have favorite baked potato toppings I didn’t include?

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A Simple, Cheap, Delicious Summer Table

Last week, our Monday Night Dinner Party included six children and five adults, and I wanted to set a fun and festive, yet cheap and simple, summer table. It’s been unusually cool here in Seattle, so when the weather finally warmed up, I wanted summer fare! Here is what we served:

  • Hot Dogs, Brats, and Vegan Dogs
  • Whole Wheat Buns
  • Cole Slaw
  • Watermelon
  • Corn on the Cob
  • Ice Cream with Fresh Berries
  • Condiments (Ketchup, Mustard)

It doesn’t get much more summer-traditional than hot dogs, watermelon, corn on the cob, and cole slaw! To keep things really simple, my husband cooked all the dogs/brats on the grill, and I put the buns in a basket on the table. I bought pre-shredded cabbage and carrots and a jar of cole slaw dressing (I like to mix slaw myself, because I used much less dressing than most recipes call for). I boiled a huge pot of water, shucked the corn, and put it in for about four or five minutes right before we sat down to eat, then drained it, cutting it in half (for all those little hands) and putting it in a shallow serving dish on the table (along with our beloved ButterBot!) The ice cream I almost always serve is Tillamook’s Vanilla Bean, and I love to top it with fresh strawberries and/or blueberries and some cacao nibs.

The whole meal took less than an hour to prep and present. I set the table with our everyday outdoor dishes (HD Designs Outdoor Round Dinner Plates in Cool Multi-Colors) and some adorable peacock napkins I found at Dollar Tree a few weeks ago. The centerpiece was just a few tea light candles in small canning jars down the center of our huge table.

To make serving drinks simple, I keep an acrylic beverage dispenser on a table in our sun room filled with water, and I always have a stack of plastic cups next to it so the kids can get water whenever they’re thirsty. Our younger guests always love getting their own drinks and serving their parents!

It was so simple and I was totally relaxed as we sat for hours chatting while the children ran around the back yard. The whole meal cost around $40, which comes out to less than $4 per person. Not bad for dinner! And since tomorrow is the 4th of July, this might be a great menu for a fuss-free backyard holiday celebration. (Just substitute red, white and blue decorations and have sparklers on hand!)

What’s one of your favorite go-to quick and easy summer meals? I’d love to hear your tips in the comments!