De-Stress at the Dinner Table (cont.)

"Candles also traditionally mark an occasion, so lighting them at the dinner table is a way of saying 'This meal is special -- we're special,' or even if you are single, saying 'I'm special,''' says Renee Schettler, food editor for Real Simple magazine and author of Meals Made Simple. "You get a lot for a little with candles."

If you have young children, try using one large candle set in a weighted base to ensure it doesn't fall over, La Mont suggests.

"You can also turn lighting the candle into part of the dinner ritual -- something that signals the start of a meal -- and let a different child do the lighting each time," says La Mont.

4. Control the Conversation

Too often, say experts, we see dinner with our partner or family as an opportunity to air grievances. This can be particularly true for parents, who may turn the dinner hour into a discipline hour, often because they feel it's the only time they have their child's attention.

To avoid this, experts recommend establishing a few ground rules for dinnertime conversation.

"Be positive and postpone negative comments for another time," says Van Berber. "Avoid lecturing and scolding, and instead reward good manners and good behavior with positive comments."

Further, experts say, don't use mealtime to discuss the "honey-do" list, your medical problems, or why you hate your boss, or your mother. Instead, prompt engaging conversation by discussing the highlights of your day, or by planning a fantasy vacation -- discussing where you'd go if you could go anywhere in the world.

"Make it a time that centers on the positive things that happened that week or that day," says Donaldson. "It's the time to tell your spouse or your children, or both, that what they did that week or that day made you really proud."

5. Keep Your Cool in the Kitchen

The table can look great, the music may be delightful, the food might smell terrific, but if the cook is frenzied, those at the table will be, too, experts say.

"When you get home, take a few minutes before heading into the kitchen to collect yourself," says Schettler. "Take a deep breath, and whether you have 30 seconds or 30 minutes, try to put the day behind you and give yourself the chance to switch gears before you try to make everyone else relax."

It also helps to get as many dinner-related tasks done ahead of time as you can.

"Put the meat in the marinade in the morning or wash the vegetables and boil the macaroni or potatoes for salads the night before," says Schettler. "The less you have to do at mealtime, the more relaxed you will be and the more relaxed your family will feel."

6. Keep It Real

While it would be great if you could make every meal a shelter from the storm, realistically, there are days when that's just not going to happen.

"Family meals do not have to take place every night," says Van Berber, "nor do they need extensive planning."

To make relaxing meals a reality, she says, schedule them on your calendar. And remember, that dinnertime isn't the only time you can have a special meal.

"If breakfast is easier to plan than a dinner meal, make a commitment to gather in the morning several times a week," she says.

It's the sharing and the bonding -- not the food -- that matter most.

Published June 9, 2006.

SOURCES: "The Importance of Family Dinners," National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, Columbia University. News release, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, Columbia University. WebMD Medical News: "Eat as a Family, Lose Weight." Mimi Donaldson, co-author, Bless Your Stress: It Means You're Still Alive. Ann Von Berber, PhD, chair, department of nutrition sciences, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth. Loren Ekroth, PhD, family therapist; founder,, Las Vegas. Paula La Mont, food artist; author, The Little Celebration Cookbook, Corvallis, Ore. Renee Schettler, food editor, Real Simple magazine; author, Meals Made Simple, New York.

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Last Editorial Review: 6/9/2006