8 Tips for a Stress-Free Family Dinner with Kids

Chow on 03.22.11
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Believe it or not, dinner time should be a bit of an oasis, time you get to spend with the people you love best. However, adding small children to the dinner table can make dinner more of a battleground than a safe haven. Sometimes it's hard to get through a meal without at least one glass of spilled milk or somebody ending up in tears. With a bit of time and effort, you can actually achieve a dinner without turmoil.

1. Have Some Conversation at Dinner
Dinner is the time we come together to share our food and our thoughts. Talk to your children and really listen to what they have to say. Yes, small children prattle and it can be boring, even annoying at times, but give everyone at the table the chance to participate. They'll learn about the ebb and flow of conversation, that the company is more important than the food, that they are part of a community. It's also a good way to start a lifetime of conversation with your child

2. Remain Calm
If your child is picking at their food, relax. As Jenni and Sami pointed out, kids don't eat the same amount every day and usually everything is just fine. Nagging or losing your temper with them really doesn't work. Neither does punishing them for not eating. Thankfully, making a child sit for hours until they have eaten every cold, gelatinous thing on their plate has gone out of fashion.

3. Have Regular Snack and Meal Times
Kids are more likely to be fractious if they are very hungry, especially younger children. If their optimum time to eat is 5:30, feed them then. Waiting until 6:00 or 6:30 is going to have them whining at you while you are trying to cook and everyone is going to come to the table cranky. If that means that you have to sit down with them while they eat and then you eat later with your partner, then that might be the solution. This usually eases up as your children get older.

4. Guilt is Not a Good Motivator
Forcing everyone to eat by telling them how hard you worked is not a great idea. Your children should learn to eat until they are sated and no more. Making them finish everything on their plate or even pushing second helpings because you made an effort isn't the way to go. "But I made it just for you" is one of my mother-in-law's favourite dinner sayings and it makes me cringe every time she says it.

5. No Bribing, Please!
Telling your child that they can only have dessert if they eat up sends the wrong message. It reinforces the view that the nutritious part of the meal is something they have to "get through" until they get to the sweets.

6. Some Decorum is Necessary
I was never a big one for rules, but there were some behaviors that were completely unacceptable to me during dinner. No one was allowed to say eeww or yuck when presented with food, that's just plain rude. If they didn't want something, they could politely decline. I also had zero tolerance for fighting, whining or children calling each other stupid.

7. Dinner is a Social Event
My husband and I both read the newspapers over breakfast and I read books during lunch, but dinner is a time for family, so no books or toys or television watching at the table. As your kids get older, you'll have to banish iPods and phones from the table as well if you want a convivial dinner.

8. Should I Stay or Should I Go?
I have a family of talkers, and we often sit around the dinner table when the meal is finished and enjoy a glass of wine and conversation. Little ones aren't usually so keen to stay at the table once they are finished, and there's no reason why they should. I often used to let my kids slip away from the table if they were ready, but they had to ask to be excused, and if we said no, they had to stay. My 23 year old still asks to be excused, which is kind of sweet.

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