Kids at the Table

So, anyone else out there struggle with small children at the table?

Obviously, I feel that family-around-the-table time is important…but that doesn’t mean it is always easy.  The mess.  The whining.  The refusal to eat anything that isn’t macaroni and cheese.  And, in my case, my son is usually almost finished with what he’s going to eat before I finally get settled in my own chair.  He’ll ask to be excused and then begins his barrage of requests to play, come see, or sit in our lap with toys making it impossible for us to eat.

I certainly admit to feeling like “why did I even bother going to all this trouble to put dinner on the table if no one even gets to enjoy it?  Throwing a pizza out here would have been much less frustrating.”

So, here’s a list of some ideas I have used or come across online:

  • Practice makes “perfect.” OK, well maybe not perfect…but it’s true that simply creating the habit of the family meal will make the process easier as kids get older.  If it’s just what you’ve always done, they are less likely to be resistant.
  • Turn off the TV.  Turn off  the phone/let it ring. It’s best to not have any distractions during dinner and this will send the message to your kids that spending quality time with them is more important than television or the phone.  And, if you are like my husband and can’t stand to eat in the quiet, turn on some fun music to set the mood!
  • Have the kids help. It’s true that kids are more likely to eat the food if they have been involved with making it.  And this isn’t just about food preparation – setting the table, putting ice in the glasses, getting out the butter and condiments are easy tasks for kids to help with while you are cooking.  My three-year-old is delighted to add salt and pepper to things before I cook them, to stir the lemonade or fruit punch in the pitcher and to pour the rice and water from the measuring cups into the rice cooker…even though these are small tasks, he proudly tells his dad “I helped make dinner” when it’s time to sit down.
  • Keep it positive. This is not the time to nag or bring up disciplinary issues – save those for family meetings or a private talk.  Conversation should be respectful and fun and inclusive – everyone should have a chance to talk without fear of being teased or put down.  When in doubt, ask yourself if you are listening more than you are talking.  (Here’s a great article on talking to your kids about their day.)
  • Don’t forget manners. This is a great chance to teach your children life-long social skills.  When kids feel confident they know how to behave in common social settings it builds their self-esteem.  Best way to teach manners?  By example.
  • Don’t fight over the food.  Once the food is on the plate, my job is done.  If they eat it, great.  If they don’t, that’s OK too.  I do my best to put a variety of healthy options in front of him and encourage him to taste new things – alongside things I know he already likes.  And yes, sometimes it means that later in the evening I’m saying, “Well, maybe you’ll like breakfast.”  I’m not a short-order cook.  (And my pediatrician keeps reminding me not to look at what my toddler eats in a day, but rather over the course of a whole week…and that makes me feel a little less anxious, but just a little!)  We also ask that he sits at the table with us even when he says he isn’t hungry at all – because it’s not just about the food, it’s family time.
  • Get creative and mix things up.  This is some of the fun of parenting, in my opinion.  Once or twice every other week or so, do something different…something that still protects the family time, but doesn’t feel like the run-of-the-mill dinner.  It can be simple:
  1. order a pizza for game night twice a month.
  2. Check out this list of conversation starters to generate ideas for new, out-of-the-box table talk.  Or this one. Or this one.
  3. Pack up dinner and head outside to a park or a playground – fresh air and a change of scenery can make dinner feel renovated.
  4. Let your kids plan the menu once in awhile (last time we did that we had fish sticks and macaroni and cheese for dinner and it was fun to feel 8 again!)
  5. Or you can get more complicated, especially if your kids are older:  for example, my dear friend Erica grew up in an awesome family where they would periodically have theme-night dinners.  Her mother would select a foreign country well ahead of time and create a menu that incorporated foods native to that place.  The kids would dress up in theme-related costumes and even bring reports to dinner with interesting facts about that foreign land.  (I know what you are thinking…sounds like a school assignment…however, I can attest to how much fun it is!  We were lucky enough to be invited to a Thanksgiving dinner at her parents’ house one year…we all went in costumes and there was a rousing trivia challenge.  It was one of the best Thanksgiving celebrations we’ve ever been part of and I remember thinking how lucky Erica is to have that as a regular family tradition.)
  6. There are also some great character building ideas from a company called “Once Upon a Family” that can help solidify some powerful family traditions at the dinner table.  (I have a future post planned with more details as well.)

So what else?  What works in your house?  What dinner table problem drives you bananas?

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