Do you find it hard to eat dinner together as a family with small children? I know. I get. But I think the dinner hour is an awesome and easy way to have quality time together without distractions.
“Some of the most important conversations I’ve ever had occurred at my family’s dinner table.” Bob Ehrlich
It can seem like overkill to write about how to have and enjoy dinner. I mean honestly. People like to eat. People like to be with those they love. It should be easy.
But dinner time with small children – like anything else with small children – is not necessarily easy.
But the best things in life aren’t easy.
For the past decade and a half research has confirmed how important dinnertime is to the family. Research shows that having dinner as a family is good for the brain, spirit, and health of the family members. And it even goes so far to link regular family dinners with:
- lower rates of substance abuse
- lower rates of teen pregnancy
- less depression
- higher grade point averages
- higher self-esteem
Now I know much of this will come later when children are older and the talks are deeper, but family dinnertime doesn’t have to wait until your youngest is 5 years of age. Here’s how you can rock dinnertime from the get go, even when you have unintentional dinner time saboteurs.
1. Go dark
For dinnertime, put away your cell phones, tablets, computers, and shut off the television. It’s hard to pay attention to your children or have meaningful conversations when you’re checking your phone notifications every five minutes.
Likewise, it’s hard for kids to give one hoot what you’re saying if Sophia the First is on in the background.
2. Have basic “rules”
You don’t have to be rule heavy to have some basic guidelines for dinner.
We have a few, but I’ll admit the kids are sort of transitioning into a new phase where our old rules aren’t necessary and we haven’t nailed down new ones that are. Here are some basic dinner time rules:
- Don’t get down until you ask
- Say “please” and “thank you” when asking for something else
- Eat with your silverware instead of your hands where possible (unless you’re too little in which case, carry on with your hands)
- No shouting or yelling
- Put your plates and silverware in the sink/dishwasher
- No toys at the table
No need to be too strict about it, but children will rise to the expectations that you set and dinnertime is great for learning.
3. Don’t make dinner a battlefield
I’ve previously written on 5 phrases to end dinner time battles and I stand by them. Where possible, let dinner be enjoyable. Don’t make stuffing their tummies full of the exact amount of grams of whatever food is on the food chart your goal for dinner.
They’ll mutiny, you’ll get ticked, dinner will be miserable, and your husband will become a workaholic to avoid it. Okay maybe not, but you get the point. You can achieve your desired results without going overboard.
4. Engage, don’t withdraw
At the end of the day I’m tired. When I’m tired I often want to withdraw to a dark quiet place with Netflix, Reese’s Big Cups, and a Diet Coke. Alone. Alas, dinner is a time of togetherness.
I must make a conscious effort at times not to drown out the conversation but to enter in. Ask questions. Respond to repetitious toddler statements. Play peek a boo, be silly. Enjoy my kids. Because I do enjoy them. Try not to bleed your tiredness out onto your family during this time.
After all, after dinner is bath and bed for the kids so you’re almost there!
5. Be prepared from the outset
I often do this. Plate the kids food, sit down and grab my fork to take my first bite to a chorus of “Mommy, I need a fork!” “Can I have a napkin?” “Where’s my milky?”
By taking a few more minutes to make sure everything they are bound to ask for (that they cannot reach themselves) is at the table or within reach you’ll be able to actually stay seated for most of dinner.
6. Put on your oxygen mask first if you’re hangry
When I’m hungry (but can’t eat) and tired (but can’t sleep) I get cranky. When I’m particularly hungry and it’s almost dinner time I’ll often sneak quite a few bites (or half my plate) before the kids sit down.
This helps put me in a better mood if dinner drags out a bit. It also allows me to eat my food while it’s hot. Also, referencing #4, I’m less likely to withdraw into “don’t talk to me while I’m eating” mode if I’m no longer starving.
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7. Pull out the quiet ones
My oldest takes after her mama, bless her, and is a talker. She’ll go on and on and on and talk over or correct the others if we aren’t careful. I make it a point to draw out the others and allow them to speak their mind too.
My husband is a man of few words and so is my son. I don’t want conversation dominated by myself and my daughter since we’re the bubbly talkers, but that can naturally happen if we don’t make the effort.
8. Keep it convenient and simple
We don’t currently have a dishwasher and you don’t even want to know how many hours are clocked in front of that sink. In this season we are often found using paper or plastic plates and utensils.
We don’t use them all the time, but at least one meal a day we do, and definitely if we’re eating out by the pool.
Keeping it simple also means recognizing your season of life, and not pushing yourself to make meals that are only going to add stress. Bulk cook, eat from the freezer, use the crock pot, and make one pot meals. Also, get your kids in the kitchen to help because the sooner they know how to cook the easier your life will be.