I want you to take a good look at that headline: Make the Dinner Table Fun
What you will not find here today: how to COOK food that is fun so your kid will eat it, how to get your kid to EAT VEGETABLES, how to get your kid to eat ANYTHING. We’re not talking about eating today. Because I think that’s the problem with our meal time anxieties. We are so worried about whether or not our kids are eating, that meal time is no longer pleasant for anyone.
If you like to read books about this topic, I want to guide you to Ellyn Satter’s book Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense. I believe it is the best resource for helping parents have peace of mind over the adventures of food from birth to grown. My greatest take away that I quote all the time is to remember the Division of Responsibility in Feeding. As parents we are encouraged to “take leadership with the what, when, and where of feeding and let your child determine how much and whether to eat of what you provide.” It’s the age old discussion of avoiding the power struggles around food. And I know we are all guilty of this.
When the focus is on EATING the food at dinner time, than the automatic response to a child coming to the table is likely to be negative. Do these questions sound familiar? “What’s for dinner.” “Will there be anything I like?” “Did you make it the way I liked it the last time or like the time I didn’t like it?”
But what if the focus of the dinner table wasn’t about the food at all? What if the main entree was just to have fun, with a side of food?
So today, I don’t want to focus on the food. I want to focus on the table. I want to reframe the narrative by taking the eating part out of the question all together. I want to make mealtimes enjoyable, or at least a step up from where it tends to be on a typical Tuesday when Sally wants the cheese in the tortilla and the taco meat on the side, but if its the spicy kind she doesn’t want it at all and only the carrots that are cut into sticks not circles but not the hummus you made the hummus from the store but not that store the one we went to last week and can we have a cookie after dinner?
Sigh. No one likes that typical Tuesday. Let’s try not to go there.
In this edition of Raise Your Mom Game, I’m sharing a few ideas on how we can actually Make Mealtime Fun. These are all suggestions I have heard from different mom friends. And none of them have anything to do with the food. Because smart moms know that as long as the kids are in a good mood, at least we can maybe enjoy a few bites of our own dinner.
Let them set the table.
At the beginning of the year, a friend of mine, who has been struggling forever to get her child to try anything beyond the classic chicken nugget diet, mentioned she was setting a new goal for the month. Make mealtime fun. She was so fed up with the conversation around food with her son. But she also knew that avoiding mealtimes all together was not an option, especially when the whole family needed to eat. Remember she is responsible for the what, where and when. So instead, she decided she needed to make dinner time fun again. To do this, she let the kids set the table. And not in a manner of “this is your responsibility” but in a way that let them have fun. Her kids together chose if they wanted to use the regular dishes or the fancy china. They found candles to light. They folded napkins in fancy ways. Children have a good sense of spotting when things are different and special. Suddenly making these choices to make the dinner table special, it brought a lightness to the mealtime routine. Her son looked forward to setting the table, instead of worrying about what he was or was not going to eat.
I was inspired by this and started right away. I let the kids set the table with the “grownup plates and silverware.” They take turns choosing where everyone sits, which gives them an enormous sense of power. Surprising everyone with what color napkin brings the biggest smile to my four year old’s face. I’m even thinking about making some cloth napkins with fun patterns on it to make it even more of a delight for him.
Our kids also help bring things to the table like the milk pitcher or small bowl of hummus. And once they are seated, we let them dish up onto their plate, as long as its relatively manageable. All this seems like work, but to a child with limited power, it is so much fun. They are so busy getting everything set just right, they aren’t paying as much attention to the fact that there is fish in a funky sauce and only green vegetables waiting for them. I like this kind of trickery.
Set the Mood with Music.
Sometimes the transition into dinner time is the hardest part. I have a friend who set multiple timers to let her toddler know it was time for dinner and it still often ended in a tantrum. Playing will beat being strapped into a highchair every time. One great way to represent shifting transitions is through music. Preschool teachers use this strategy all the time. And an even better way to put aside power struggles is by giving children choices. Coming to the table isn’t a choice. So what choice do you offer? This friend struggling with the transition part of dinner decided to let him choose “dinner music.” Yes typically it is some variation of the soundtrack to Moana. But instead of battling the “one more minute” mantra, he was excited to listen to the music, which only would play when he was sitting down with the family. This is a great strategy for the younger set who aren’t yet ready for the responsibility of setting the table. And maybe if they are distracted by humming along to Daniel Tiger tunes they won’t be able to whine about the vegetable touching the rice.
Ask Engaging Questions.
Once you have everyone at the table and excited to be there, how do you then get them to stay? If you have an eater in the family that doesn’t particularly enjoy dinner food, it’s likely you can only stall the part about the eating for so long. Eventually they are going to discover what is on their plate is not to their dining standards. If you are lucky, they might do the “try one bite” thing. But quicker than you have even plated your own dinner, they are done and ready to move on. Now what? The best way we have kept our kids at the table and their attention away from the food on their plate is by asking questions.
This is a strategy that I have tried various ways over the years and discovered it obviously only works best when your child is of the right conversational age. When they are very young it starts with “what did you do today.” Eventually it branches into more specific questions like “highs and lows of the day.” Last year my daughter introduced a question about “what did you learn today.” I loved this one. Especially because so often I found myself stumped by it. I loved the challenge it gave me to spend my day looking for things I learned so I can show my children that learning is a forever skill.
No matter the questions asked, I have found that there is great motivation to be heard. Our antsy fast eating four year old will sit longer, or even return back to the table after excusing himself if he knows he can have a turn to talk. And while its not about the conversation at all, you do get a chance to learn some really fascinating things about your kids when they get the chance to answer questions that don’t come up in a typical day. (I have also found we are teaching respect and patience by waiting for your turn to talk and listening to others, but this is a whole other topic of conversation we can save for another time.)
I cannot necessarily credit this idea to any particular Smart Mom, because I have heard many variations on this concept. But I also find I am constantly hearing new suggestions from people about the type of questions they ask at the table. This is especially helpful because I am always ready to add more to our repertoire. Because this post series is about celebrating how to Raise our Mom Game, I want to turn this category over to my readers.
What are the questions you are asking your kids at the table?
I am going to compile a list from your suggestions and send it all back to you later this week. You can leave me your ideas in the comments here or on my social media outlets. I’m certain we will have a great list to pull from.
I have one more idea for making dinner time fun, but I'm saving it for a special Hey Sis Try This revival post, with a recipe included! But since I promised this wasn't about food, I'm keeping that one separate.
I hope some of these smart ideas will help make your dinner table more enjoyable. Because, here is the true secret I haven’t mentioned yet: down the road, maybe WAAAAAAAY down the road, one day your kid will actually eat something. And you can credit it all back to taking the anxiety of food off the table and replacing it with fun.
Now it’s your turn! Please share with us some questions that have helped you at mealtimes, as well as any other ways you have Raised your Mom Game at the dinner table. We ALL need to hear it.