10 Ways To De-Stress Dinnertime With Young Kids

How does dinnertime look in your house? I cling to dreams of family bonding and quality time, but lately, that’s just not the reality. My youngest child, recently freed from the tethers of his high chair, is up and running from the very start. His older brother and sister are most often fighting, or if they agree, it’s because they both don’t want to eat what’s for dinner. I’ve always felt I had it good. I love to cook, and even in the chaos of the hour before dinner, making dinner relaxes me.

My kids are all healthy eaters, and they even help prepare some meals. I hold dinner as a sacred time, and I love everything about the process. I thought I was doing everything right! But lately, I just can’t keep up with the stress of dinnertime. My six-year-old’s friend was over last night for dinner, and I asked him how his parents kept him at the dinner table.

“They tape my butt down,” he replied.

Alright then. At least I’m not alone.

I’ve read studies on the importance of family meals. I know how important it is to all sit down together, even for a few minutes. I’m not giving up on dinnertime. So I’ve been talking to other parents, and looking into little shifts I can make to de-stress dinnertime. Here are some tips:

1. Understand that preschoolers might not be developmentally ready to have a sit down meal.

I’ve seen in my older children that kids’ appetites and ability to engage in discussions really does increase as they get older. I’m going to work to remember that my younger two children might not be able to sit for longer than five or 10 minutes, and that’s OK. We’ll try to make the most of the time their at the table.

2. Make sure we’re eating at the right time for our family.

I've realized my children do best eating well before 6pm. This often isn’t the best time for me or my husband to eat, as we both work full time. It doesn’t make sense to keep the kids hungry or have a snack so soon before dinner. Sometimes feeding young kids earlier is a better option.

3. Take care of nutritional needs before dinner.

When we do all have dinner together, I don't want to spend the whole meal urging them to eat their vegetables. Instead, I’ll do what I can to make sure they eat good food throughout the day. The fewer food battles, the better.

4. About 40% of children are picky eaters, and you might have one of them, and it’s OK.

Picky kids don’t translate into picky adults. It’s totally normal for kids to be choosy about what they like and don’t like. I’m going to keep exposing my kids to delicious foods, and let that be that. My goal is to make sure that mealtime is not a battleground.

5. Have kids bring a healthy snack to the table.

Here’s another option: rather than eating a full meal together, have your kids join in for a post-dinner snack at the table. This way, you can still have the time together at the table. Offer yogurt or fruit at the table while you and your partner eat together.

6. Choose a quiet toy or activity to bring to the table.

This is definitely a matter of preference, and in my home, it wouldn’t be an iPhone or iPad. But some kids really benefit from having something they can focus on. Drawing can be a great option here.

7. Don’t expect great conversation at the table.

Let go of expectations, and your kids will often surprise you. Younger kids might not be ready for conversations at the table, so it can be helpful to ask direct questions that can be answered with just a few words. Try playing games where everyone says what the best part of their day was. That’s often been a good conversation starter at our table.

8. It might only last 10 minutes, but make it a good 10 minutes.

Remember that dinner is a time to be together and to bond. Keep your eyes on the prize. Try not to get into food battles or family feuds. Focus on connection.

9. Remember that quality time takes all shapes.

Let’s take some of the pressure off family dinner. Find other times in the day to connect as a family, like breakfast, a family walk, or board game.

10. Eat a grown-up meal after the kids go to bed.

I try not to make this a regular occurrence, but some times I need a quiet dinner alone with my husband. So I sit with my kids as they eat their meal, and then I know I’ve got a grown-up meal ahead. I’ve stopped trying to turn kid meals into adult ones — at least for now. This takes the pressure off, and makes the night enjoyable for the whole family.

I love dialogue among parents. I would love to hear your dinnertime methods.

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