Dinner time with kids can often be chaotic. I am a parent with 3 young children, a busy household, work and extracurricular activities, and I know it can be a challenge to get dinner on the table, make it healthy, keep my kids occupied and keep myself sane through dinner preparation, dinner time and cleaning up. To help our family get through dinner time we use a few strategies to engage our kids, have fun, and enjoy our family time.
It is easy to get flustered and focus on getting your kids to eat, not to mention to have a moment to stuff food in your own mouth, while trying to stop catastrophic spills and messes from happening. But there is a way to make dinner time a family time that you and your kids love.
You can get your kids to calm down, eat their dinner and be polite, with a few simple ideas.
First, stick to, or create, a dinnertime routine. For example, have your older kids help set the table or get everyone drinks, and then when dinner is served everyone can sit down. Next, if you have your kids help you make the meal, they will be very excited to taste the food, even if it has ingredients they usually don’t eat. Get them involved with the meal (a theme or 1 dish wonder or playing a game). If you tell a story, or play a game during dinner, set up rules that kids have to follow in order to play (sit quietly, eat bites of food, stay seated and so on).
Play a Game during Dinner
At first it might seem that the dinner table is the absolute worst place to play during dinner. But with kids the goal is to get through dinner without a melt-down, everyone eating some of their food and to spend time together as a family. There is a place for conversational, formal-type dinners, but I do not think that helps to keep your kids, especially young ones, engaged at dinner time. Set some rules so that everyone knows they must be sitting in their chair and continuing to eat while the game is played. Here are a few Game ideas.
- Name Something that Is: Color, Shape, Food grown in ground, on a tree, or any other group or things.
- I Spy: Play the usual I spy game but everyone has to be able to see it from their seats.
- What Is It? Someone says 2 to 3 clues and each person takes a turn guessing what it is. (ex. do animals or foods that are easy for kids to guess).
- 20 Questions: Guess the Animal (Does it live in the water? Does it have wings?)
- Tell a Story: Let everyone add to the story, or take turns telling stories.
Kids love to make things up and to be a part of something fun. Think of the type of food you want to make and create a theme around it that your kids will love. Some ideas are:
- Fiesta – a Mexican Feast – tie in favorite foods or character, i.e. Dora or Diego
- Camping Out– grill out or just have foods from a camping trip- hot dogs, beans, etc (or veggie hot dogs).
- Beach Bash– have seafood (fish, crab meat, scallops, or other beachy items)
- Picnic in the Backyard– make an easy pasta salad, cut up fruit and a few other easy items and pack it up and take it out back or to the park
- King or Queen for a Meal or Throw a Royal Feast– Let your kids wear a special hat and give them a few healthy meal choices to pick for their royal treatment and add a special royal treat at the end.
- Opposite or Reverse Day– Why not serve breakfast at dinner-time? Kids love to do something different and special, so make breakfast at the end of the day. Serve whole wheat pancakes, eggs and fresh fruit. Often breakfast or lunch foods are easy to make, so on a night when you are in a hurry this is an easy and fun option. You can let your kids help stir the batter or sprinkle veggies or cheese on the eggs.
- Shapes and Colors Meal– Have your kids help you plan a meal with foods that are all the same color or the same shapes. It is a fun way to try new foods when they are combined with favorites (ex. serve grapes with a new green veggie or strawberries with red pepper slices). What a great way to talk about shapes, colors, similarities and differences.
1 Dish Wonders and No Utensils
What child does not love to use their hands when eating? Make an easy, healthy version of your family’s favorites that are a special treat to eat and do not require their utensils. Make a mexican dish that has rice, beans, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and serve with whole grain chips or make nachos (use healthy chips, low-fat cheese, put some beans and chicken and veggies on top) so that they can use chips or whole wheat pita wedges instead of utensils and you have instant fun!!! Kids love dipping and it is a treat to get all of your food in 1 dish, instead of a separate fruit, veggie, protein for a change.
Give Your Kids a New Printable Activity before Dinner
One way to keep your kids busy right before dinner and to help them wind down is to give them an activity at the table that will only take a short time to finish. Many websites have free coloring or printable activities. ZiggityZoom.com is one of them. Dinnertime printables: For coloring pages, click here. For Printable Placemats and other items, click here.
Don’t be afraid to be silly with your kids. Relax and enjoy the time you have with your kids. Our kids sense when we are frustrated or immersed in our own thoughts or when you are distracted and not giving them your full attention. If you need a cue to snap out of the business of the day and re-engage with your kids, just give your body a good shake or brush the stress from your shoulders and say- “Hey, Lets Have a Great Family Dinner.”
(Once a month we have our nieces and nephews over and have a handful or kids to feed. The games and ideas work great for large groups of kids as well.)
Reengage. Have Fun. Tell Stories and Play Games. Your kids will remember dinner time as their favorite part of the day for a lifetime and so will you when they are grown. Remember, this time may be hectic, but it is up to you to make it something more than racing to finish your meal and wash the dishes. It is about reconnecting with your spouse and kids and a time to slow down for a half an hour. Remember what is important and dinners will be much calmer and a lot more fun for everyone.