By Bethany Whitemyer
My family is super busy! With two working parents and two kids that are involved in multiple activities and sports we find that we only have a few nights per week that we all sit down together for dinner. I’m sure that your family is busy too, but everyone needs to eat, so make dinner time fun with a few of these tips.
Setting the scene
Even if you’re all just having grilled cheese sandwiches and smoothies for dinner, set the table with some care. Consider using a place mat at each seat. You can make them yourself with your kids or buy them inexpensively pretty much anywhere. If you choose to make them with your family you can use children’s artwork, or seasonal decorations like leaves, flowers, or grasses pressed between contact paper. Or you can work with your older child to teach him/her how to use a sewing machine and make a few simple ones out of fabric the children choose.
Your place setting should also include a napkin of course. We use cloth napkins at my house and have a lot of different colors and patterns. Sometimes we have every person’s napkin match and sometimes we switch it up and have them all mismatched. When I was little we each had a different way of keeping our napkin in a napkin ring. One pulled the napkin through by the middle, one person did a fan fold, one rolled it, and one person did a double fold. It was a small tradition but made dinner time more memorable. You could even make a few napkin rings with your children.
Make it playful
One fun game to play even before you start eating is to play a guessing game at the table. Set one different thing at each person’s place. For example everyone has a blue plate except for one person who has a white plate, or everyone has water except for the one person who has milk. I had to get very creative with this as my children got older and make the differences more subtle because they learned all my usual tricks. Try putting out one tablespoon and the rest teaspoons if you’re running out of tricks
Be sure that there is always something familiar for your child to eat at dinner. If you know he will always eat fruit, add some blueberries, strawberries, or a sliced apple to his plate. If there is something you know he likes available then he may be more willing to look at an item you’re introducing for the first time.
Ditch the distractions
Turn off the TV. Put away your phones. Your time is valuable, and you probably spent a chunk of it preparing the food you’re about to eat. So spend some quality time to really focus on your food, and on your dining companions.
Ask the right questions
I am always tempted to ask the dreaded “How was your day” question at dinner, but it never seems to generate the conversation I hope it will. Try asking some other kinds of questions instead, like:
- What was the funniest thing that happened today?
- Who did you eat lunch with today? Where?
- If you could relive any moment from the day today which one would it be? Why?
- If you could erase one moment from the day what would it be?
- How is _____ (insert child’s best friend’s name or spouse’s co-worker’s name here)?
- What are you reading? What are you studying in science? What art materials did you use?
Have a back-up plan
What’s your plan if your child doesn’t want to eat what you’re serving? I’m always disappointed when I’ve put a lot of work into a meal, only to have my sons look at it with loathing when I put it on the table. Decide in advance with your partner in parenting what you will say and do if your children choose not to eat what you have made. Here are some back-up plans that you may consider:
- What’s being served is the only option.
- If the child doesn’t want what’s being served then he/she can have a bowl of cereal or some other alternative.
- You make a whole separate dinner for your child.
- Your child may be excused from the table if they’re not eating.
- Your child has to stay at the table until everyone is done.
- They have to eat all of something, and some of everything.
Your back-up plan may involve multiple options. Discuss the rules on seconds, after-dinner snacking, and dessert in advance with your family to avoid dinner time confusion, confrontation, and disappointment during dinner.
I hope that some of these tips help make dinner time at your house a little more enjoyable. Happy dining!
Bethany Whitemyer is the Center Director at the Bright Horizons in Pembroke, Ma. She and her family, husband David and sons Evan and Lucas, live in Rockland, MA. She has been known to serve cheese and crackers for dinner, on her wedding china.