Once our kids become a certain age—say, like 12-18 months—we as parents say goodbye to our luxurious, hour-long, wine-infused meals with intellectual conversation, quiet pauses, and Sinatra playing softly in the background.
This is now what our household looks like at 6:30pm most nights: My normally sweet 2-year-old is trying to crawl across the table like it’s her personal jungle gym, shrieking joyously at such a high pitch I worry dogs will show up on our porch any minute. My 4-year-old is grunting “bleh” while sticking his tongue out when he sees the healthy meal I painstakingly prepared for the family, silently crushing my spirit. The 2-year-old then throws the meal on the floor, a huge grin on her not-so-cute-anymore face. Add in an argument over who gets to use the truck fork and then “accidentally” spill some milk on the floor for good measure, and maybe you can understand why I started dreading dinner most nights. I was sad and frustrated, since my beloved, peaceful dinnertime had become a thing of the past.
In an attempt to restore some semblance of sanity, my husband and I sat down to create a few “goals” for our dinnertimes, to try to make it a little more enjoyable for all of us. First step: send the kids to grandma’s. Kidding…. After agreeing upon a consistent time to eat dinner every night, we came up with the following:
- Don’t be a short-order Cook: It is so tempting to offer multiple food options to our kids, especially if they are picky eaters or slow growers, but this just breeds demanding monster children. Rather than preparing multiple meals, I now serve one meal for everyone that includes at least one item each kid will eat. One thing I have learned to cater to is texture preference. My kids LOVE all the components of a taco or burrito, but they won’t eat it all deliciously wrapped together (crazy, I know). So I separate all their food on their plates, and assemble the adults’ food the regular way.
- Repeat after me: “You don’t have to eat it all, but we would like you to try one bite.” We encourage our kids to try everything on their plate, but do not insist that they eat it all. Remember back when your babies were first starting to eat solid foods and you read that it can take 8-11 tries before they actually like it? That theory still holds true. The more times they try something (or any of us, for that matter!) the more likely they will start to like it.
- Separate the trouble makers. It took us an embarrassingly long time to pick up on this one. We would commiserate about how annoying it was that our kids spent all of dinner fighting with each other rather than eating, but never thought to separate them! Now we have adjusted the seating arrangements so that a parent sits in between, and things are much calmer.
- Feed our kids balanced, healthy food throughout the day. According to experts, if your kid eats a balanced diet throughout the day, then they have consumed at least 80% of the daily calories and nutrients they need. Hearing that really helped me relax at dinner; if they don’t eat much (or anything at all, as is sometimes the case), I can take a deep breath knowing that they have eaten enough calories to sustain them til tomorrow.
- Know appropriate portion sizes. In a country where obesity is now an epidemic, it’s not surprising that many of us are serving our kids huge portions. And then expecting them to eat it all! Ready to have your mind blown? A typical school-age child needs about 2 ounces of protein per day. Guess what? One chicken nugget = one ounce! So two nuggets meets your toddler’s protein requirement for the entire day! Check out this website for appropriate guidelines on portion sizes: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/nutrition/Pages/Portions-and-Serving-Sizes.aspx
- If our child says they are full, trust them. Experts say that toddlers are very good at listening to their hunger and satiety cues. I wish I still had that skill! To help my kids retain this talent, I try really hard to believe them when they say they are done (and to keep them honest, I won’t give them a snack 20 minutes after dinner if they complain about being hungry…)
- Make it fun. We recently came up with a game our 4-year-old loves: the “Two Bite Question” game. For every two bites he takes, one of us asks him a silly question. He loves it because he gets to come up with silly answers, and we like it because it encourages conversation (and he eats)! So get creative and come up with a fun game for your family!
- Adjust our expectations. It can be very hard for toddlers and preschoolers to sit still for 5 minutes, not to mention 25-30 minutes at the dinner table. This is age-appropriate behavior. Kids are wired to explore and learn through action, so it makes sense that they don’t want to sit down for half an hour to eat. So we no longer make them. We have decided to let the kids go play once they are done while we finish our meal in well-deserved peace and quiet- and pour ourselves another glass of wine!
I think the main point I try to remember is that mealtimes during the childhood years are challenging. Our role as the parent is to buy the right food, prepare it in a nutritious and creative way, and let our kids do the rest. So take a deep breath and find ways to make dinnertime enjoyable again. Because the more fun the kids see you having, the more likely they will want to join in! Bon Appetit!