4 ways to have a successful family dinner with young children

Posted August 2

For parents of young children, dinnertime can be one of the most chaotic and frustrating times of the day. Parents and children are tired, cranky and hungry. Yet, the evidence to support the importance of family dinner is overwhelming.

When a family sits down to dinner together they eat healthier. This is especially true for children, and that makes sense because what children are going to make themselves eat their vegetables? Eating as a family also teaches social skills and strengthens relationships. It has even been shown to increase workers’ perception of job fulfillment if employees are home to eat dinner with their families. The list of benefits goes on and is extensive.

Just because family dinners are important doesn’t mean that they are easy. First, you have to decide what to eat, and sometimes that alone can be enough to throw stress levels soaring. Add in kids complaining about food, refusals to eat and immature table manners, and family dinner becomes a time to be dreaded.

It doesn’t seem like it should be that hard to get everyone to eat the food, but if you’ve got one that insists on eating off of a blue plate and another doesn’t like his carrots to touch his chicken nuggets, you may have a long meal ahead of you.

Hang in there. Keep trying, the benefits are real. The time as a family is important. Try by taking one small step at a time to achieve the family dinners that you dream about. You know, the ones where everyone skips to the table, comments on how wonderful the food smells and pleasantly discusses the day’s events together.

1. Meal-planning

The dinnertime stress starts before you’re sitting at the table. Deciding what to make can cause anxiety all day long. I learned a valuable lesson about meal planning in the three months that my family of six lived in a camp trailer while our house was being built.

A camp trailer has limited space so I couldn’t stock it full of food and then throw open the cupboard doors every night to decide what was for dinner. I had to write out a weekly meal plan and buy only the food that we were going to use to make those meals because that’s all that would fit in the cupboards.

I was amazed by how less stressful dinner time became because I already knew what I was going to make. I also knew I had all the ingredients so no more last-minute trips to the store.

Having a plan can help you to start meals on the right footing, but start small. There are people that plan out their meals a month in advance. If that seems overwhelming, which it does to me, start small by planning dinner before you’ve made breakfast or shortly thereafter.

Why? You have time to look for any ingredients you need to buy, you know what time you need to start cooking, and you’re not going to have a panic attack at 5 o’clock when you still don’t know what to make for dinner. You even have time to look up a new recipe if you’re feeling adventurous.

Once you’ve gotten into this habit, try planning a whole week. Before you know it, you’ll be using leftovers more often and saving money because there are fewer trips to the store.

2. Have children help prepare the meal

There are lots of ways for kids to help, even the little ones. They can shred lettuce, wash vegetables and help stir. Setting the table, getting hot pads and pouring drinks are all jobs that need to get done before you can sit down to dinner.

While having children help prepare the food in no way guarantees they will eat it, at least prepping dinner makes them appreciate the work it takes to make it.

Participating in meal preparation gives them a sense of pride in the meal, even if they don’t want to eat it. They quickly learn how it feels to have someone complain after they’ve put forth the effort to make dinner. They become less likely to complain themselves.

3. Serve one food you know your kids will eat

One of the most stressful parts of family dinner is getting kids to eat their food. If you, like me, can’t shovel down another spoonful of macaroni and cheese or one more chicken nugget, you’re going to need a plan.

Serving at least one food per meal that you know your kids will eat reassures you that they aren’t going to starve and gives them one less food to battle over. Serving something as simple as apple slices, oranges, or corn can get them started eating. It may not be enough to fill them up, but you’ll know that they won’t starve before breakfast in the morning.

This one food may also give you the negotiation power to get them to try a new food. For example, they can only have more of the food they like when they’ve tried something they don’t.

4. Establish mealtime rules and stick to them

What is a mealtime rule? I require my kids to at least try everything at the table. They don’t know if they like something if they haven’t tasted it. I don’t make them eat everything on their plate, but I expect the courtesy of tasting it.

Saying please and thank you are another example of simple mealtime rules.

Some kids, like mine, have a hard time remembering rules that seem obvious, but they may need a reminder. For example, no making gagging or throwing up noises at the table over food they don’t like. If things get really out of hand, I may ask the child that is having a hard time following the rules to leave the table until he or she can control himself or herself.

Enforcing mealtime rules is hard, especially when you’re tired. That’s why it’s best to keep them simple and short so you aren’t trying to micromanage everything going on at the table.

Start with one change at a time until you feel like you’ve got a handle on it and then add in another. Keep reminding yourself that with each step you take, you’re contributing to your children’s physical, social and emotional health as well as your own feelings of satisfaction.

Stacey L. Nash is a mother of four and a freelance writer/blogger. You can find her at EMAIL:


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