Gathering for meals and proper nourishment mean a lot to my husband and me. We want our children to have a healthy relationship to food, as well as be enjoyable companions while eating. And, if you have toddlers, you know that this is not an easy endeavor!
Let me illustrate this for you… I’ve got something cooking on the stove and in the oven (I may even have a dessert in the mix because we have a terrible sweet tooth). Meanwhile, the two boys are chasing one another around the den—all in good fun—but they suddenly erupt in screams because they are not sharing their toys with one another. Our sweet baby girl has been miserably whimpering for the past five or ten minutes because I won’t hold her while handling the stove and oven. And I’m praying that my husband comes home from work safely (and quickly!). Oh, and the oldest who has been telling me for the past hour that he’s “so hungry” suddenly proclaims that he doesn’t want what I have prepared. My patience wears thin and when we finally sit down, I’ve got indigestion due to the almost two-year-old throwing food and the oldest exploring his future as a lawyer with his argumentative skills about how many bites until dessert.
Meals will never be flawless, but I believe that if the heads of the household see eye-to-eye on certain practices, then over time it will become easier. Even if you don’t have children, start your traditions now so that you feel more confident about your procedures. Without further ado, here are my top tips for controlling the chaos during supper time (or any meal, really).
Plan meals ahead
There are so many cute options out there for posting your weekly menu in your home—a chalkboard, a whiteboard, we have a printout that has mini clothespins hot glued to it and I switch out the cards every weekend when I’m meal planning. If you know what you’re cooking, there’s no scrambling around the kitchen (or to the grocery store). Also, do some meal prep days beforehand. For example, go ahead and cook the rice you need for the stir-fry or bake the chicken that you need as a topping on Alfredo pasta a few days in advance.
I have been doing this recently and it may not cause the same results for everyone, but it’s worth a try! When the children begin to whine (or even scream), I turn on the Piano Guys and it steadily gets quiet (or someone starts dancing—usually the toddler since he adores music). A few times, I have even kept the music on throughout our meals, which is a lovely addition.
Delegate tasks before and after dinner
Our oldest loves to be the “big boy” and fill the glasses with water and place utensils on the table. Once my husband is home, I communicate to him what help I may need post-dinner. Of course, try your best not to overload your spouse right when he walks through the door. It’s usually best to greet him first and ask how his day went before dumping a to-do list at his feet… yeah… speaking from experience. Depending on the age of your children, assign each one a cleanup task—wipe the table, clean the floor, do the dishes, store the leftovers, etc. For more ideas on this, visit my previous post Chores with Little Ones.
Create and agree to your family guidelines
It’s best to decide on the rules at the dinner table beforehand rather than “winging it.” Discuss them with your spouse, relay them to your children, and stay firm! We have the following: no snacking right before dinner to build up an appetite, no TV or cell phones at the table (TV is allowed for family movie night because we take our dinner in the den), children must ask permission to leave the table (we find that this minimizes the wandering that tends to happen), no one may say “I don’t like it” until he or she has tried it, and dinner must be mostly eaten in order to have dessert.
Practice the art of conversation
With this tip, I must include to never raise your voice and try not to bug your children every minute about taking a bite. I am totally guilty of this, and the results are surprising when I simply allow the family to be together. Focus on this rather than how many bites a child has taken (if the little ones are truly hungry, then they’ll eat during the meal). Obviously, a child may need a little reminder every once in a while, but he or she should also have a chance to partake in the conversation. What a wonderful opportunity to teach taking turns and truly listening! Ask about how everyone’s day went, talk about an activity or vacation coming up soon, and converse about the food insofar as you’re not fixated on it and the need to consume it. In Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé (a French parenting book), she even suggests asking detailed questions about the food to the children, “What colors do you see? What does it taste like? Do you like the texture?” Hey, you could have a future food connoisseur on your hands so best to form that little mind properly!
Make the meal extra special
Put down a tablecloth or fancy placemats (don’t worry about things getting messy), light candles (honestly, I just turn on electric tea lights and put them in pretty candleholders), and use those plates or utensils you haven’t used since you got married. Elevate the experience and you may find that everyone displays their best manners! When it’s a feast day, I’ll try to put a Saint’s holy card or a printout of a prayer on the table for my husband to include in our blessing.
Anything else to add? Please comment and share how your family enjoys meals best! Bon appetit!