How to turn a Toddler into an Amazing Dinner Guest

When was the last time you asked your child to dine with you? Probably never if you’re like most people.

Truth be told, I haven’t either.

In fact I just had a Mommy/Daughter dinner date with my 7 year old and I didn’t even ask her to go to dinner, I just assumed (correctly so I might add) that she would be on board with my plan. In retrospect I think how lovely she would have felt if I had extended a dinner invitation rather than just laying out where we were going. It was Souplantation by the way, and she just happens to love eating a good salad, especially if she gets to build it.

Anyway, I got to thinking about how I’ve used lots of tips I’ve read to help our family enjoy one another’s company at the dinner table, and it transformed our often upside down dinners into pleasant experiences. I want to share those tips with you, because they’ve worked for me when I’ve remembered to use them.

Eat dinner at the Same Hour Every Evening

There might be nothing else more dreaded than the cranky toddler who is hungry and dinner is still 20 minutes out. The funny thing is it’s not just the kids this affects. The adults in the house are less cranky when dinner is at the same time every night as well.

Have your Child Assist in Planning and Prepping the Meal

This one is the hardest one for me to implement with 3 eager-to-do-everything kids. I learned that prepping can also include setting the table. Ever notice how much a child loves choosing their meal from a menu at a restaurant? Just bring that idea home! Type up your 3 meal options, pictures work best for the younger crowd, and when you’re thinking about what to have for dinner and it’s lunch time, ask for your child’s input! Pull out the faux menu and allow them to place their order. I can see this going over really well for birthday dinners!

Create a Colorful Plate

I started being more aware of this after meeting my friend Kia Robertson of Today I Ate a Rainbow on Twitter. It is amazing the difference in appeal of the dinner when it is vibrant and rich in color. One of our old stand by meals hardly ever makes an appearance any more; plain chicken breast, mashed potatoes and frozen corn. Now my goal is to always avoid something that drab looking. If it looks boring on the plate chances are slim that YOU are enthused to eat it, never mind your child.

Have an Appetizer

When we go out to dinner it is almost expected that something will come before the meal to tide everyone over until the dinner arrives. This is actually an easy thing to add to the family dinner at home. The ideal choice here is a variety of fresh veggies, maybe some ranch dip that you make a la Deceptively Delicious. A homemade ranch dip where you sneak good stuff in is smart. It also generally gets kids eating more veggies!

Ever since my husband put the moratorium on pre dinner snacking (essentially anything after 4pm) I found myself wanting to snack, probably just because there was this rule in place. (We instituted the rule because our kids were often eating just a couple bites of their dinner, claiming they filled up on xyz snack.) Anyway we adapted the rule, veggies and certain fruits are allowed. Veggies don’t kill their appetite. Sometimes when the kids wander into the kitchen they are told they can pick a veggie if they are hungry and sometimes they turn right around and go back to playing. Other times the veggies are gobbled up gleefully.

Share Your Favorite Part of the Day

We’ve been doing this most nights for nearly 2 years. Each person goes around and shares their favorite part of the day. It’s really just a conversation starter. We are in such a groove with “Favorite part of the Day” that Owen, my youngest who’s 4, will begin before everyone is even at the table. Owen loves to share several things he favored from the day, sometimes he interrupts others, eager to get his turn. This practice has done more than get us talking around the dinner table, it is a lesson in manners for my preschooler in waiting his turn, it is a practice of caring as when one person has shared they move on to ask another family member “What was your favorite part of the day?”

It can be a practice in patience, as I mentioned, Owen loves to jumpstart our dinner conversation. When the kids are busy talking and listening to one another, there is less opportunity for them to bicker. I’m glad that we’ve built this into a family tradition. I literally stole the concept from the movie “The Story of Us” where they shared their “high/low” for the day.

Play Signing Games!

This is especially useful when out to eat. If you’ve been signing with your baby, you are about to cash in all the chips with this tip. Often toddlers are not too keen on the activity sheets and crayons the hostess brings for your little one. This can be a problem if your little one is so hungry they’ll eat anything, including crayons! I’m typically not a proponent of “Quiz the Baby” type of activities, but in the scenario of being at a restaurant, waiting for a meal to arrive, asking your baby to demonstrate the sign for objects you know they know can save everyone in the restaurant, including the parents, a bit of stress.

Toddlers were built for figuring out how to use their bodies, hence they do not like to sit for long periods of time. When you keep a baby’s mind busy, engaged in conversation, this leads to greater patience. You get creative freedom here in making up your own signing game. Personally I like to point at objects I see all over the restaurant and ask my toddler “what’s the sign for xyz?” It works wonders! And you might even see your child point out new objects that they want to know the sign for. Great way to take turns and keep building your signing vocabulary!

It occurred to me that part of being a great host is to engage your dinner guest in conversation. Imagine if we treated our toddlers as dinner guests at meal time:

  1. Extend a dinner invitation
  2. Eat dinner at the same time
  3. Include them in the planning
  4. Steer clear of boring meals
  5. Have an appetizer
  6. Favorite Part of the Day conversation starter
  7. Play Signing Games

How would dinner look in your house if you implemented just one of these things?

Published on: July 31, 2013
About the Author
Photo of Joann Woolley

Joann Woolley is a Master Level Instructor in the Signing Time Academy. ASL is her first language (her mother is deaf) and her first sign was MILK. Both her fluency in ASL and understanding of ASL culture provide an insight to the language that opens the eyes of her students.

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