A smiling face is half the meal.
Food is inherently social. Often mealtime can be a source of great stress with children. Each family members’ unspoken goals for the meal can differ. Parents want kids to sit down with them, eat a healthy meal and not waste food. Children are excited about seeing their parents and want to play and not sit and eat. It can also be a chaotic time. Sometimes one or both parents are coming in the door from a full day of work and needing a little space to transition. Children are eager to see the parents they’ve missed and share something about their day.
Dinner together has posed a great challenge for our family. Jason and I value our time together to sit down for a meal. We know it is important to connect after our busy day of work and play. E, our son, has always had a sense that he could control his food intake and make us crazy. Add to the mix a more formal setting (sitting down at the table together) with a need for manners and dinnertime became a veritable pressure cooker.
There are specific, simple ways that you can shake up the dinner dynamic and improve the tone of mealtime to create a more positive dining experience for all. Since we began applying these strategies, our mealtimes have been better. We enjoy each other at the dinner table – which, at one point, we thought might be impossible with a small child. Try one or all of the following and see if you don’t create some positive results.
- Involve children in the planning, shopping, preparation and clean up – all aspects of the meal. Children will feel a sense of ownership over the meal and be more invested in making it a good experience. They may even take pride in contributing to the cooking and preparation. You may not have time to involve children with every aspect of every meal but consider just having them set the table and help clear the dishes. Maybe once a week you could involve them in the cooking process. Even very small children can assist by throwing vegetables into a pot of water or washing green beans in the sink. Also, children can get excited by selecting recipes and providing ideas for what they want to eat. Involvement in menu planning can go a long way toward them eating and participating at mealtime. Be sure and highlight their involvement when you are sitting down to eat so that all members know and can appreciate how the meal was planned and prepared.
- Take a moment to connect with your child before sitting down at the table particularly if you are coming from work and haven’t seen them for a while. Sit down and ask what they are playing with or about their day prior to the more formal setting of dinner. This provides a sense of calm and connection instead of bringing chaos and stress to the table.
- Adjust your seating. Take a look at where each member is sitting. If you and your partner are typically seated at either ends of your table, try repositioning yourself on the side of the table opposite your child or place a child on the end instead. Children are particularly sensitive to power dynamics since they have very little control over much of what happens to them. They are looking for opportunities to exert independence and control. Moving your seat across from where they are seated might give them a sense of equality.
- Give thanks. You don’t need to be a religious or even spiritual family to appreciate what you have. Take a moment before eating to appreciate each other, the day you’ve had, the good food and drink before you, and the people who put time and energy into shopping for, preparing and planning the meal. This can also help children learn about and appreciate where food comes from originally and how it ends up on our tables.
- Focus on being together and not on how much or what is eaten. Set a timer or point out a time to children on the clock. We set it for ten minutes for our five year old. Give them the responsibility of knowing when their minimum time to sit with you is up. E likes to prove that he can stay longer than the timer and we love his presence. This gives the child a sense of control and helps prevent a power struggle over sitting at the table and eating.
- Let go of worries about what is eaten. Make sure that the nutrients you care about your child getting are spread out through the day. Then, let go of your worries about finishing food. Also, serve small quantities that are more likely to get eaten. If you find that there is a lot of waste from dinner, continue to reduce the amount you serve letting children know the reason is to reduce waste.
- Focus your conversation on the children and then, when they go to play after their time is up at the table, you can connect with your partner on adult issues. Lead off with a statement – not a question – about something you know they did that day. “I saw Mitchell on the playground today. That’s so fun that you got to see him.” If you ask, “How was your day?” first, you may get a “Fine” followed by silence. Or if you ask, “What’d you do today?” you’ll likely get the “Nothing” response. Enter into a conversation about the child’s life without putting them on the spot and see what emerges.
- Set clear expectations for behavior. Boundaries for what is acceptable and unacceptable should be discussed at a time when it’s not dinner. This could be an easy conversation to introduce after dinner is over and the family has moved away from the table. For example, the “yuck” word is just not allowed at the table. The cook doesn’t deserve that kind of negative feedback. If your child uses a “yuck,” “blech” or “poo-ey”-type word or sound, tell them directly that your family does not use that word. Be sure you replace their comments with appropriate language so that they have something they can say. “I don’t like this, Mom. I’m not going to eat it.” Or “May I have something else?” If you are concerned that your children have developed a bad habit of using that kind of language, don’t worry. You can introduce a new rule or routine. Just do it. Announce it is a new rule and enlist their support in moving forward. As long as you consistently reinforce it, it will soon become a part of your family’s expectations for mealtime. Other expectations might be to turn off or not bring devices (cell phones, music or gaming devices) to the table.
- Give reminders and reinforcements for good manners before you are seated. If you are concerned about manners – using a fork, not using fingers for example – it’s best to give a reminder to just that child before you are seated at the table with the whole family. Then, you are not correcting them in front of the full family. If you need to remind them during dinner, make it quiet, direct and gentle. They will learn through your modeling and reminders but making a big deal of it can backfire and turn into another power struggle.
- Prepare your children for restaurant meals and for meals with other people. On the car ride to dinner, use the time to remind and reinforce. This is not the time for nagging or scolding. Here’s how it might go: “Remember, when we are at the restaurant that we all stay seated at the table through the whole meal. Last time, you ordered from the menu yourself and I saw you make eye contact with the waiter and tell her clearly what you want. That was great. Keep it up!” Keep it short. Give one reminder and one positive reinforcement so that it makes an impression and your child remembers your comments.
When in doubt, ask “What message am I sending or what am I teaching to my child through my words and actions?” As Jim Henson said, “[Kids] don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.”[i] We know that modeling is one of the most powerful teaching tools so, at mealtime be sure that you are modeling the positive behaviors you want to see.
For more, check out the following terrific resources!
David, L., & Uhrenholdt, K. (2010). The family dinner: Great ways to connect with your kids, One meal at a time. NY: Hachette Book Group.
The producer of An Inconvenient Truth, Laurie David’s new mission is to help America’s overwhelmed families sit down to a Family Dinner, and she provides all the reasons, recipes and fun tools to do so.
Rosenstrach, J. (2012). Dinner: A Love Story: It all begins at the family table. NY: Harper Collins.
Part cookbook, part survival guide, Dinner: A Love Story has all of Jenny’s favorite meal ideas, suppertime tips, and cook’s secrets (read: cocktails) that help make dinner fun again. – Everyday Food
Also, check out the article, The ABCs of the Family Dinner Table on the blog, Connecting Family and Seoul for lots of creative ideas for mealtime.
[i] Henson, J., Lithgow, J. & Muppets and Friends. (2005). It’s Not Easy Being Green: And Other Things to Consider. NY: Hyperion Books.