''The children take over the conversation so much that Jim and I have given up trying to talk together at the table. If we can just get through dinner without someone spilling milk. . . .''
''Whenever I cook something new, it's always, 'Ick!' and 'Yuk!' or 'What's that?' After a long day at work, complaints about the food seem like the last straw.''
''I know dinner should be a time to have fun together. But at our house it's not fun. And whenever we try to teach the children good table manners, things just get worse.''
These are just a few of the mealtime moans shared in our neighborhood.
Yet the ideal of loving family members gathering to eat and share the day's adventures shouldn't be so hard to achieve. Haim Ginott, author of ''Between Parent and Child,'' suggests that dinnertime is not the time for any kind of preaching or moralizing. Rather, there should be a loving atmosphere, ''. . . few disciplinary actions, and many examples of the old-fashioned art of conversation.''
Parent-child discussion at mealtime can serve as preparation for children's adult conversation. Who can doubt the part played in training future leaders by the stimulating debate at the dining table of Joseph P. Kennedy? Mutual trust and confidence will grow as, together, families search for topics of general interest; share upbeat current events; discourage monopolizers tactfully; abide interruptions patiently; encourage shyer family members to join in; and foster the delights of good-humored argument, laughter, and fun.
However, as every parent knows, there can be stumbling blocks to this ideal-sounding dinner hour. Squabbling and one-upmanship sometimes replace love and gratitude. And instead of leading lively debate, parents may find themselves replaying patterns from the past, when scoldings and lectures might have dominated the conversation.
To rid ourselves of old habits, we must replace them with new ones. This means thinking before speaking, then speaking in different ways until the new habit is established. Not that we're going to ignore every oversize mouthful or glass of milk carelessly overturned. But we can keep attention focused on constructive talk, of interest to the whole group, while silently correcting the ''gobbler'' or casually helping the ''messer'' clean up. Our own relaxed attitude, recognizing behavior that's normal for energetic children's young ages , will help all family members relax and enjoy the meal.
In addition to changing old habit patterns, how else can families make mealtimes merrier? Here are some practical suggestions:
1. Share your new goals. Tell the children you feel the family's main meal together should include more positive elements. They may have some excellent suggestions, in addition to instructive comments about why meals aren't as much fun as they might be. Listen to them!
2. Collect anecdotes, jokes, cartoons. There's no question that the family that's laughing together has little time for nagging, complaining, bickering. Humor and a relaxed, casual attitude go a long way toward success.
3. Keep meals for young children simple. My friend who felt besieged by ''icks'' and ''yuks'' was citing a common problem. Most children are conservative eaters, often with little fondness for casserole dishes, fancy sauces, and gravies. Some parents find that only after appetites surge ahead at around eight years of age do boys and girls welcome varied diets and novel food combinations.
4. Be realistic about young children's conversational skills. Once the baby is out of the high-chair, parents can't expect to talk together as adults, over his or her head, as they used to. Instead, it's time now for subjects of interest to everyone in the family. Parental concerns can usually be discussed later.
5. Mix it up as much as possible. Break out of old patterns and routines by changing your mealtime style or location. Try informal picnics on the patio or beside the fireplace; older children fixing and serving their specialty; Sunday suppers of waffles; children eating early while parents dine later in style; sending out for everyone's favorite take-home meal; going out to eat at the family's favorite restaurant when feasible.
6. Try flowers or other centerpieces, pictures, maps, music. Mealtimes can be merrier when focusing on something interesting or attractive. Hang a map of the area you'll be visiting on vacation, or the home state of a favorite relative soon to visit. Pick some flowers or arrange a simple centerpiece of shells from a memorable week at the shore. Tune in a program of quiet dinner music. Relaxed, happy talk should be quick to develop.
With some creative thought and planning everyone can improve this daily celebration of family life.