Feeding our families is a challenge, but there are a few simple ways to dramatically improve the way everyone experiences family dinners. These tips are meant to help you enjoy the meal with your family—both in terms of the food and simply enjoying your time together.
Tips for Family Dinners
We’ve all heard about the myriad benefits of family dinners—increased vocabularies in the kids, lower rates of drug use, and actual time to connect amidst busy schedules—but one thing that doesn’t get talked about enough is the how of getting dinner onto the table.
We wanted to tackle this topic because there’s a lot nuance that gets missed in the headlines we see in the news…especially when you have babies and toddlers at the table.
Why Family Meals Matter
Family dinners are one of the few times in our day that we’re all together—or at least we are on some days of the week. It’s a time to reconnect after being apart or to just pause and be together. A lot of family memories happen during dinner, but they can also be a giant source of stress if we’re not working together to make them happen.
These times are a great chance for our kids to learn behavior from us, to see us eating a range of foods (which can help them to learn, especially when kids are seeing new foods or are still learning how to chew), and it can be a touchpoint in our day. And while it’s hard to go into a meal feeling entirely pulled together—there always seems to be 17 things we need to get at the last minute—framing your goals for the meal can help.
Whenever meals seem especially challenging in my house, I run through these questions to help me understand our broader context:
- Are my kids comfortable in their chairs? (It could be worth looking at how comfortable they are in their highchair or booster seat or making sure they’re strapped in if needed.)
- What else is going on in our life that could be impacting meal times?
- Am I distracted? Stressed? Tired?
TIP: It can also help to remember that kids are often more tired at the end of the day and they might want your attention more than they want food.
1. Agree on the Standards
If you and your partner have different expectations for family meals, you will likely have frustrations about the meals—no one is a mind reader! Have a conversation about what you each expect in terms of the actual food you’ll be eating, the environment (phone, no phones, tv on or off), and whether everyone needs to eat together or not.
Then you’ll be on the same page when you need to explain the rules to the kids and you don’t have to continually renegotiate terms each time you sit down at the table.
2. Make a List of ALL the Jobs Related to Meal Time
There’s so much more to meals than just the cooking. There’s the shopping, the deciding what to have, and then the taking care of the kids while the cooking is actually happening. Go through all of these and decide who’s responsible for what so there’s no confusion in the moment!
You only need to do this once—or maybe once in a while if you tend to forget—to get more onto the same page. It may also help you see places to streamline, take shortcuts, or condense your efforts.
3. Work on Clear Communication
No matter how much you plan, things will still come up to throw everything off course. So be clear with communication both ahead of time and in the moment—and after the fact as needed—to avoid letting frustrations fester. This could be as simple as deciding who’s in charge of getting meat out of the freezer in the morning. Or who makes dinner when you both have late afternoon meetings.
Text, talk each morning, set a plan for the week—pick a path and work it!
4. Don’t Backseat Drive and Don’t Keep Score
If someone other than you is in charge of something for the meal, they’re in charge and you get to go do something else. Keeping score on who does how much and/or telling someone how to do something can quickly lead to negative meal time emotions, so try to relax and let other people be in charge when they are!
5. Trust Everyone’s Hunger
This is also a good time to point out that trusting everyone to eat just as much food as they need for their bellies can greatly reduce the stress at mealtimes. Because then the only person you’re worrying about is yourself—or you may need to help a baby or toddler, but you don’t need to be counting bites of food or protein grams.
TIP: Learn about this approach known as the Division of Responsibility here and Normal Picky Eating.
6. You See a Problem, You Deal with the Problem
If a kid spills Cheerios on the floor, we clean it up. If there’s a bib full of food sitting on the table, deal with it. If the dog spills their water bowl, wipe it up before someone steps in it and tracks water all over the house. Try not to let these things all fall to one person because that’s just not fair.
You may need to communicate about this, ask the kids to chip in, and generally be considerate. (Which sounds so simple, but family life can be a challenge.)
7. Add Simple Sides
The easiest way to eliminate or cut back on short order cooking is to add simple sides as safety nets. This allows you to cook a main meal, add 1-2 simple sides that the kids usually like as assurance that they always have something they can eat. Sure, the kids may sometimes rely more on those sides, but the bigger picture goal is less work for the parents and more meals when everyone is eating the same thing.
8. Try Family Style
Did you know that the way you serve kids meals can greatly impact what the kids eat and the mood of everyone at the table? And that it’s actually quite easy to adopt a meal time strategy that can help the kids eat a wider range of foods? Family style meals to the rescue!
Kids love independence and letting them help to serve themselves can totally change the mealtime dynamics.
TIP: Read more about family style meals here.
9. Meal Plan….at Least a Little
Taking the time to do a little prep work ahead of the week can help so much when it comes time to cook. But that doesn’t mean you have to spend hours in the kitchen doing full meal prep. There are some simple strategies you can use to work smarter and reduce your stress—like simply writing out a dinner menu somewhere in the kitchen where everyone can see it.
TIP: Learn more about my approach to easy meal planning.
10. Talk About Everything Except the Food
Sure, you can explain what’s on the table, but then change the subject. Ask what the kids did, about their favorite toys/games/characters, ask them to tell jokes, tell a story from when you were a kid, or try telling a story in the round. I swear, the less you fixate on the food, the more relaxed the kids will be (and they might even enjoy their meal more!).
And when in doubt or when you need a reset, turn on some music! This phase of eating with little kid at the table can be intense, but remembering that it won’t last forever can help.