Save Your Sanity at the Dinner Table: 3 Tips for a More Manageable Mealtime

Does this scene look familiar to you?

  I love all of these cartoons by   Adrienne Hedger  , the talent behind the hilariously relatable nickmom and Hedger Humor cartoons. 

I love all of these cartoons by Adrienne Hedger, the talent behind the hilariously relatable nickmom and Hedger Humor cartoons. 

Whether my husband is away (as he is now, on military orders) or here at home, dinner time with my three young children can get a little crazy. Maybe it will be easier when everyone can cut their own food. Or, even sweeter, when they can MAKE the food themselves! But since my oldest son only knows how to make toast and popcorn so far, and for some crazy reason they all need to eat dinner every single evening, I’ve had to create an arsenal of some tricks to make dinner time a little bit calmer and somewhat save my sanity. Don’t be fooled, it doesn’t mean every meal is perfect. We are a real family with real kids who make real messes. And my seven year old son, Christopher, still acts as though I’m trying to poison him if I put anything green on his plate. My four year old, Jackson, still likes to voice his opinion that what we really should be eating is pizza. He would eat it every single day, for every single meal if we let him. But at any rate, these three tips have made mealtimes much more manageable and more calm as the years have gone by.

Tip 1: Set Expectations

There was a season in which dinner time made me feel like a broken record. It seemed like every night, I put my standard phrases on repeat:

“Stop getting up from the table.”

“Eat your food. Don’t play with it.”

“Leave your shirt on!”

Yes, between my daughter’s belief that clothes are optional and so oppressive, and Jackson’s desire to stand in his chair to get a bird’s eye view of the dinner table, it was getting a little ridiculous. So one night, an idea struck me that made the teacher inside of me slap my head and say, “Duh! Why didn’t you think of this before, Mrs. Herr?!” I decided to do what I used to do with my first graders on the very first day of school. Children crave order and boundaries, and they need us, as parents, to set those boundaries for them. They are not wired to naturally know how to behave in a dignified manner, but they instead need to be taught.

So, I got out some paper and colorful markers and the four of us came up with a list of rules for when we are eating together at the table. I thought of what the biggest mealtime issues were and created expectations that would curb those problems, and framed them in the positive.

For example, I was constantly having to ask Jackson to sit on his bottom, because he liked to stand on his chair. So the rule to curb that became, “Sit in your chair while eating.” Tell your children what they ARE allowed to do rather than giving it a negative connotation such as “No standing in your chair.” That phrasing might them to forget about the “no” part and just hear the words “stand in your chair”. So be sure to spin it in a positive manner to ensure they know what the allowed expectations are.

Here is what we came up with that night.

Sure, it may look a little cheesy with the stripes and polka dots, like what I used to doodle in my Lisa Frank notebook back in fourth grade, but hey, it works! Also, the last part of the 5th rule sounds great in a Mary Poppins dream world, and I did enforce it for the first few days, but it has since fallen to the wayside. They DO put their plates and cups in the sink and help clean up their area, but as far as the hug and expression of thanks, I always seem to forget about it. It is a nice gesture, but I focus primarily on the first four rules as of late.

We all signed our list, and  I explained to them in kid-friendly terms what a contract is--that it is a sincere promise to act in a certain way, and to not go back on your word, or there will be consequences. Signing the list also helps them to take ownership in the project.

These rules describe what works for our family. Each family is different, but it has helped us TREMENDOUSLY. We posted them up right by our dinner table so it’s in full view at every meal. If someone breaks a rule, they get a verbal warning (I use Strike 1, Strike 2, etc.). If they get three strikes, they have to remove themselves from the dinner table for a few minutes and think about what they did and how they should act next time. To be honest, I have only ever had to reach strike 3 ONE time for any of the kids since implementing this, and we started following these rules over 2 months ago! And my son who loved to stand on chairs, has only done that once or twice since then.

Tip 2: Create Dinnertime Routines

The kids are almost always sitting at the table before I do, and when I sit down, Evelyn is the first one to remind all of us that it’s time to pray. Except that she is always under the impression that we have forgotten, and she says, “Hey guys--we no prayer yet!”, which leads us into our dinnertime prayer. It always helps to start the meal by expressing our thanks, and helps set a positive tone.

Another mealtime routine we have, that we do several times a week, is something called Highs and Lows. We simply go around the table and say something positive that happened that day, and something that upset us or was a challenge. I really enjoy hearing the kid’s give their interpretations about their day, and I think it’s helpful and authentic for them to hear grown ups talk about their frustrations in a kid-friendly terms. It helps them know that even grown-ups face challenges and that problem solving is important for all stages of life.

Tip 3: Be Present

If I expect my children to leave their distractions, such as toys and books, in a different room, then it would serve me well to set the example by not bringing my biggest distraction of all time to the table: my phone. Dinner time should be for eating and connecting. We can’t really do a good job of mitigating sibling squabbles or engaging in family conversation if we are checking our email or watching youtube videos. My husband and I have both been guilty of this before and we realize now that it is doing our kids a big disservice. We have talked about getting a little basket where we can keep our phones during family times, to keep them out of sight and out of mind. For now, I just try to keep it in a different area of the house or at the very least, not on the table itself while we are eating. 

Every family is different. Schedules get hectic, parents work late, life happens. In our family, it is very important to my husband and I that our entire family eats together around the dinner table as often as possible. I’m sure this will be more difficult to maintain as the kids get older and get involved in different extracurriculars, but for now, this is our constant norm, and I’d like it to be a time we can all enjoy, instead of a time that leaves me stressed out and drained. Thankfully, the visible rules, positive routines, and commitment to being distraction-free have helped, and I hope your family can benefit from these suggestions as well!

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