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Family dinner with littles - how do you do it?

post #1 of 42
Thread Starter 

We have a 3 y/o and an 8 m/o.  I would really like us all to sit down for a meal in the evening but when we do it is invariably a stressful experience where we are constantly trying to keep the 3 y/o in her chair, hold the squirmy baby, and attempt to get some food in both of them, never mind trying to eat ourselves.  DH thinks we should just feed them first and then eat separately ourselves.  I agree this is much less stressful but I am wondering how we will ever teach the kids to sit down for a meal if we don't start early.


Do you have family meals with babies/toddlers?  If so how do you manage to make it a pleasant experience for everyone?

post #2 of 42

Are you open to making a sticker chart? We did that after dinner got out of control for us (long story but we always had family dinners, then DH started working nights, then things fell apart, then when he is home for dinner the kids act up). After the kids get 10 stickers they can pick out a little prize-- we'll go the toy store and they can pick out something small, or we'll go out for icecream, etc. Some things that are conditions for getting a sticker:


-at least trying to eat the food on your plate (don't have to eat everything, but at least make a good effort)

-stay in your own chair

-be respectful (no saying the food is gross, or saying that something someone else is eating is gross, etc., no potty talk)

-asking to be excused and clearing your own plate


If the kids make a good effort to do most of these things they get a sticker. We're not too hard-lined about it and that works for us. Sometimes when we have an odd-schedule day (we're out playing til late, the kids are starving but DH and I aren't hungry yet, etc.) we'll still sit at the table with the kids (most of the time!) and then DH and I will enjoy an adult meal later. We try not to do that too often, though. But every once in awhile I think it's a nice thing to indulge in.

post #3 of 42
I agree with your husband. It isn't worth the stress, and you obviously can't teach an 8-month-old to behave at dinner, and it is a long process to teach a 3-year-old. You could work with the 3-year-old, but it will take time and IMO flexibility.

Personally, what I'd do is feed the 8-month-old first, but have the 3-year-old eat with you, but not get stressed if she can't sit through a whole meal at this point. Kids that age have no sense of time and it is a fight over nothing, IMO. I know a lot of people here at MDC fight this fight, but I can't see how it's worth it, because they aren't getting any of the family time vibes you're hoping for if you're fighting every night at dinner, and in a year or two it'll be much easier for them. When my older one was 3, I just let her get down to play when she was finished eating. There was no stress and she'd stay with us longer and longer all the time until at some point she wanted to sit through the whole meal with us and now looks forward to us eating together at dinner, so much that she volunteers and loves to set the table every night. It's a favorite time of hers (she's 10 now), and I wonder if she would have such a positive feeling about it if she'd grown up with it being a battle zone.

I also have a 3-year-old, but she is a really easy kid and sits at the table with us through the whole meal on her own.
post #4 of 42

Aiming for all-together 1-2x/week might be more manageable at those ages, and your dh's idea most other nights might work out.  


Our kids often leave the table early to play or whatever (they're 5 & 2) and dh & I like a bit of quieter dinner table time together, so that works out for us.  When we have guests they're more likely to stay at the table and be chatting, and at special dinners they will end up mainly staying at the table - so in my opinion, it's still working out alright.  


Dd1, for the longest time, simply ate dinner at her own small table near us, and actually tended to sit at the table longer when we did that for her.  We'd just insist she was wiping or washing her hands in between eating and playing more often, if she was getting up a lot or was eating messily.  


I know when dd2 was littler, I'd stop my dinner to clean up her highchair (or else the mess ended up getting too crazy for me, as she'd just turn to playing with her food eyesroll.gif) and then set her down in the dining room with one of a few particular toys that weren't too disruptive for eating (nothing too noisy or that needed lots of help or supervision).  

post #5 of 42

If you're all at the table together for 20 minutes - half hour, does it really matter if you're all eating right at the same time? If the kids have eaten earlier, set the 3 year old up with some crayons and the 8 month old with a toy in the high chair and you an your husband can eat. Or maybe the kids eat and you two just have an appie that you can pick up with your fingers, like chopped veggies or something.


Usually what we do if the baby won't be happy in her high chair is, I nurse her and eat one-handed... sometimes DH has to cut up my food for me but our big kids are bigger and can manage their own plates. My main goal is for us to spend some time together and share a bit about our day, so we do a round-robin "What was your favourite part of your day?" once we've finished that, the kids can excuse themselves when they're done eating. Sometimes that's just 10 minutes, sometimes we're all sitting around the table for an hour. It all depends on how they're feeling... but I think having low expectations has made supper time more pleasant for them, in general. When it's a big ordeal for the kids to get through, they almost sabotage themselves. 

post #6 of 42
When dd was a baby I gave her finger food like steamed veggies or cereal and ate quickly with her. When she was done eating I let her go play. As dd got older she was able to sit for longer periods of time. I did have to have the food for both of us ready before serving to make this work, especially when she was younger and ate efficiently.
post #7 of 42

I have a 4 yr old and a 9mth old.  The majority of our meals are family meals.  We just find it easier that way/haven't considered anything else.  We all come to the table together.  Both children are involved in their food for at least a short period of time (baby self-feeds/plays with food) during which time adults eat and or talk.  Children can leave the table when they are finished eating, after wiping hands and face.


We eat fairly quickly.  Not all meals are exactly relaxed ....  but I look forward to eating at a more relaxed pace or lingering over wine or tea or whatever when they are a bit older or with a babysitter.  Some meals are quite nice though.  And generally, what we are doing works for our family.  Our primary goal is that we share food together.  We eat the same food.

post #8 of 42

This might work for the older child:

When my oldest was around 2.5-3 meal time started to be stressful with her not following basic etiquette so the three of us (parents and kid) sat down to develop our rules.  Stay in seat unless excused, ask for food to be passed/don't grab, try a few bites of everything, etc.  Nothing too major.  Then we made a photo list of our rules (kid really enjoyed this) and posted it on the wall.  For a few days before we started the meal we would have a reminder of the rules.  Then we just got to the point that we would just say "Daughter, what is the third rule?" when she wasn't following it.  Long story short, it worked.  She felt empowered because she was in the process with us and it wasn't just us saying "this is the way it is!" (even though we had an idea of what rules we would guide to the list before we started).

post #9 of 42

We try to serve everyone at the same time but focus on getting the kids to eat during that time. Once they eat the can ask to be excused and go play? Then we finish gobbling down our dinner.

post #10 of 42
Originally Posted by AfricanQueen99 View Post

Then we made a photo list of our rules (kid really enjoyed this) and posted it on the wall.  For a few days before we started the meal we would have a reminder of the rules.  Then we just got to the point that we would just say "Daughter, what is the third rule?" when she wasn't following it.  Long story short, it worked.  She felt empowered because she was in the process with us and it wasn't just us saying "this is the way it is!" (even though we had an idea of what rules we would guide to the list before we started).


I really, really like the idea of doing photo/picture rules together.  Thanks much for sharing - we might try it out ourselves (with some of the annoying meal-time issues we've been dealing with recently).  thumb.gif

post #11 of 42

I agree with mamazee.  I don't really see making them sit at the table when they're not into it an enriching endeavor.  When they are ready, they will.  For now, we enjoy our meals in the living room.  We don't allow screen time during meals, but otherwise, the kids can eat or play as they wish.  We are actually pretty focused on each other during dinner, though.  It's not that different than a normal meal at the table except a bit more freedom for the kids.  


I also feel like when I was growing up, food was always at the center of every social gathering and I am just as happy to let go of the link between eating and being social where ever I can.  I am not sure that I am ever going to make a point of having family meals.  

post #12 of 42
I have only one kid, DS is 3. He actually really loves & looks forward to sitting down all together. We start with grace, and often light a candle. Everyone shares something they are thankful for. The routine of it seems to help set the stage for the meal itself plus makes it feel more special.

We all eat the same food (I don't make kid-friendly versions or anything). We don't feed DS & never have -- we place food in front of him and he chooses whether or not to eat it. So we can just eat our own meals & don't have to worry about 'making sure he eats' because it's his responsibility. Sometimes he cleans his plate and other times he just has a few bites, but it balances out over the course of a day or two. We also make sure he isn't going to the dinner table hungry -- he is free to taste as we're cooking, or grab a healthy snack, even if dinner is just two minutes away (I might let him know that dinner is almost ready but I don't make him wait for it... over-hungry = not fun kiddo!!)

There aren't really any rules at dinner time. We don't worry yet about table manners or staying still, though we try to lead by example. He usually uses a fork and napkin but sometimes eats with his hands or wipes his hands on his shirt, no big deal to me. We have to engage each other (in other words, family dinner can't be me & DH talking about our days & ignoring DS -- he has to be part of the conversation or else he'd be miserable). He isn't required to stay at the table for any amount of time, he could get up and leave if he wanted to but he rarely does; I'm actually usually the first to get up and sometimes he & DH will linger for a while.

I guess I'd suggest making family dinner seem really special -- and what that means depends on what your kids like. Maybe a special dinner time song or prayer. Maybe using fancy dishes or cute cloth napkins with their favorite animals on them or kid-made placemats. Maybe each person chooses a component of the meal, or dinner ends with a favorite treat. Maybe your family dinner is a picnic on a blanket on the living room floor. Whatever it is that your kids would enjoy, whatever would make them feel a part of it. Once they get used to it, it won't seem like such a struggle. I honestly can't imagine feeding DS separately, it feels like second nature that we all eat together (well, whoever is home; sometimes DH isn't able to be home for dinner) and seems easier this way to me.
post #13 of 42

Sitting down as a family at dinner is not negotiable for us. It's the only meal we all eat together, and while there are rare exceptions (late birthday party or Mom's Night Out), we always sit together for dinner. By the time DS turned 3, he was fine with sitting for dinner. Actually, now that he is closer to 5, he is getting more antsy and leaving the table early where before he really didn't. I'm fine with him leaving when he's finished eating if DH and I are taking a long time to finish (some meals are so good that DH has seconds/thirds and I'm not going to make DS sit through that). However, he rarely ends up with dessert those times, b/c he's already washed up and moved on from dinner. Eventually, he'll figure out that there's dessert on the days he stays at the table (which is "nice manners," to stay until everyone is finished, but I'm not being strict on enforcing that part right now).


As far as keeping it stress-free and teaching him to sit, we have rules, and they are enforced. Some days it IS stressful, but the rules are there to keep that to a minimum. I work hard all day (as does DH) and I'm not going to let a toddler ruin my only relaxing meal of the day. So if we can't sit nicely and use good manners, we don't stay at the table. (We don't go off to play, either -- we go to our rooms or the "timeout" chair.) When we are ready to eat nicely, we can come back to the table. But three strikes and that's it. If DS uses up his three chances and still can't be nice, we figure he must not be ready to eat so his meal is over and he goes to his room til we're finished (b/c otherwise he'll continue to disrupt our meal either by yelling/crying/whining or bringing us toys). I don't think it's unreasonable to have a meal together and I don't think it's unreasonable to expect a 3 year old to not ruin it for the rest of us.

post #14 of 42

We just did it.


Here's what we did. All the food was on the table when the kids were called. The baby was in a high chair with food on the tray. I hated feeding my babies and they hated being fed. So, they fed themselves. They had to sit at the table and eat. When they were done, they could say "I'm done." and leave the table. Babies got taken out of the high chair as soon as food started hitting the floor by intent rather than messiness.


We made it a point to talk to the kids and engage them in conversation. They get our full attention during dinner. No TV, no reading, and honestly, very little adult talk. Now that they're 11 and 8, they can participate more fully in conversations that we have.


I don't think it's  unreasonable to ask a 3 year old to stay at the table for 5-10 minutes. I think it's much harder to start this routine when they're older because they're used to not sitting at the table. When you start when they're babies, they get used to it. Yeah, some days were stressful. A fair number of meals were interrupted a lot between about 18-24 months. But by the time my kids were 3, they could do it.

post #15 of 42

We've always done family dinners.  I cannot imagine doing it any other way.  For us, that is always the easiest thing to do.  We all eat the same food, so we all eat when it's ready. shrug.gif  My kids are 5 and 2.  We have #3 due in September, but I just expect that means I"ll be eating one handed while holding the baby until she's old enough to sit in a high chair and eat/play with food.  I just give our babies the parts of our meal they're ready to eat on their tray and let them self feed.  I don't prep separate food for anyone, and I've never spoon fed.


Over the last two years we've developed some dinner time rituals that I really love.  We eat by candle light, with all other lights out.  We have an annual ring as our centerpiece, and each night at dinner we pull the bead for the day and talk about what happened that day, and about up coming days in the month.  We take turns pulling the bead.  Tonight it was my 2 year old's turn.  My girls are unlikely to leave the table.  They're very social and WANT to be at the table with us.  We often have nice meals with pleasant conversation and everyone eating happily, but it's certainly not perfect.  They do act like kids.  They are squirmy.  They sometimes eat with their hands, wipe hands on their clothes, chew loudly, complain about food, and sing or play silly repetitive games that make me crazy.  When we're all home, we sit together for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and sometimes afternoon snacks too.  I love our family meals, especially dinners. 


All of that said, if it's not working for you and your family dynamic, then find something that does.  Needs ebb and flow over the years.  It's ok to go with the flow of what works now.

post #16 of 42

There's time ideas like keeping meal times on the shorter side and not having the kids come to the table until everything is set so everyone can just start eating. There's helping ideas like letting the kids help with cooking and/or setting the table so they will feel invested in meal time. There's trying to make it special ideas like allowing the children to share their favorite things of the day or to say prayers or poems of thanksgiving together. 

For my family, breakfast and lunch were whenever and wherever but everyone would sit for dinner no matter what and no one was allowed to get up until everyone was done. Well ... that really backfired on me. My dd complied and never gave me an issue. Even as far back as barely a year old she sat in her high chair happily but as she got older and started eating more it would take forever for her to finish and we adults were itching to get up from the table. She's just naturally a really slow eater. So I guess I'm saying be careful what you wish for ... lol. 

To really answer your question ... I personally don't like rewarding kids for doing things that should be done just out of respect and common courtesy. I think if eating together as a family is really that important to you then you should explain to your three year old why it is and that you expect him to participate for those reasons.

post #17 of 42
Thread Starter 

Thanks for all the input everyone.  It's interesting to see what different people do.  I'm still trying to figure out exactly what is making this so difficult for us.  I think some of the elements are


- Late night dinner: DH often doesn't get home until 7:30 or even later, so we are frequently sitting down to dinner at 8pm.    I feed DD1 some fruit and milk beforehand so she's not starving, but this means she's not super excited for dinner either.  And she's never been that into food, if it's not something she's wild about she just won't eat it. 


- Eating all the same food: I make one dinner but so far there are only two things I have found that both DH and DD1 will eat: fried rice with veggies and spinach omelets.  The other nights DD will usually take maybe 1-2 bites of the main meal (with cajoling) and end up eating mainly something else (eg corn, avocado, oven fried potatoes, tomatoes/cukes/olives out of the salad).  Or sometimes I will make a piece of fish just for me and the kids (DH is a vegetarian and he'll just have a cheese sandwich those nights).  So I'm not making two meals but somebody (either DH or DD1) is always having some quickie item instead of the actual dinner.  And the baby has no teeth so her food has to be soft, so I usually make something just for her as well since nobody else is particularly into mushy food.


- Sitting at the table: I don't mean I need DD to sit there for an hour or anything,10 minutes would be fine with me, it's that she won't even come in and sit down.  She'd generally rather play or watch TV or whatever rather than come to dinner.  I would be willing to make this a hill to die on and have the battle every night, but DH doesn't feel the same way and it's hard to enforce when both parents are not on board.  DH is totally fine with having DD1 play around on the floor while he goes over and sneaks bites of food into her mouth every so often.  I think 3 is too old for this but it's hard to get DD1 to toe the line when she knows DH is totally happy to feed her while she plays.  And when I do get her to sit at the table after thirty seconds she wants to sit on my lap instead of on her chair, and will throw a tantrum if I don't let her.


- Baby doesn't like the high chair: She is OK there for up to maybe 10 minutes if you give her things to play with (new ones every couple of minutes).  After that she won't tolerate it any more, somebody has to be holding her and she is so squirmy and grabby it is really hard to eat that way.


So DH is right that dinner is better without the kids, because when they are there they are inevitably both wanting to sit on my lap at the same time, which makes it impossible for me to eat my dinner, which makes me super grumpy and negates the whole point of trying to have a nice family dinner. 

post #18 of 42
Hmm the problem might be partly how late dinner is. My 3-year-old goes to bed at 8. Their body clocks might be out of synch with your meal times.
post #19 of 42
What about family breakfast? Or start with a weekend family brunch/lunch? 8pm seems rather late for dinner... and maybe your kids would be in better moods earlier in the day & more willing to sit for breakfast? And maybe it would be easier to find breakfast foods the whole family would eat?
post #20 of 42

You've had loads of good ideas suggested, so not sure if you'd like one more...


A few things that work for us (DS is 2.5).  


First of all, he absolutely needs to be belted into his booster seat.  He is just that kind of child.  He absolutely needs to be restrained in order to eat.  He is fine with it and doesn't protest, but if we gave him the choice to sit in a regular chair with no belt, he'd be gone in 30 seconds!  Can't tell if your daughter is belted or not, but perhaps it would help?


We also put away all the toys at dinner and we make a big deal about what music we are going to listen to  while we eat.  DS likes to throw out suggestions ("Bon Jovi, Bob Marley, etc) and we try to mostly honor them :-)


Once DS finishes eating, we keep him at the table with us for as long as possible by giving him books to read.  We keep a big basket of books by the table and just feed him one after another for as long as he will tolerate.  Sometimes it lasts as long as 20 minutes.  It helps a ton. 


Hope something works for you!


Oh, and I almost forgot, we light a candle, too, which DS gets to "blow out" at the end of the meal  (we do it, but he thinks he is blowing it out!)

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