It’s hard to imagine better meal times as a family when there is food all over your floor and a toddler doing laps around your kitchen. Your school age child is complaining about the meal while your preschooler demands a cookie. And you haven’t even sat down to eat your meal yet.
As you take your first bite, the toddler has squirmed out of the booster seat again and is approaching your curtains with sticky hands. Your preschooler has spilled his milk and your school-age child is barking requests for seconds.
If this sounds like meal time in your household, know you’re in good company.
So many of us long for calmer meal times with our families. We have these idealistic hopes for peaceful conversation coupled with healthy food and gratitude. But kids aren’t born with good table manners and we need to teach them these skills.
Don’t worry friends, I got you covered. You can teach your child how to behave at the table and have better meal times as a family.
Importance of Family Meal Time
Why even invest mental bandwidth in implementing family meals or improving meal time? Why not just let the children eat alone and then eat with your husband once they’ve gone to bed? We do that sometimes, but the truth is that meal time is about more than just nutrition.
Eating meals together as a family is powerful. Research has shown that families who eat together have children who do better in school and have better social-emotional health. Meal time can provide a grounding stable routine for children and can be a ritual that creates a sense of family connection and identity.
Research has also shown that family meals are important to help children learn to control their weight. You can use meal times to teach children about listening to their hunger cues and learning to eat healthy, nutrient-packed food.
If you’re at a phase in your family life where you desire better family meals, there are many reasons why it is beneficial.
Adjust Your Expectations
While family meals can be purposeful for children and the whole family, meal time requires a host of developmental skills. Children need the fine motor skills to feed themselves and the social skills to ask kindly for their needs to be met. Remember: babies aren’t born with these skills and it’s unlikely your child will learn them without significant practice.
So consider what you’re currently asking your child to do. It is not developmentally appropriate for a toddler or preschooler to sit at the dinner table for 15 minutes. If your child is repeatedly getting out of his seat before he has finished, you might need to adjust your expectations.
If your child is screaming or acting out in another way, remember all behavior is communication. Your child is communicating that this challenge is too hard. So identify what the challenging aspect is for your child and consider what you are expecting too much.
This doesn’t mean ditching all your values. Instead it means looking at the problem, and trying to adjust your expectations to a goal your child can meet. When success occurs, you build and improve from there.
Define Your Priorities
Once you consider where you might need to adjust your expectations, you need to consider what are your top priorities for family meal times. Limit yourself to one or two so it is achievable for your child. When you try to fix everything at once, it is easy to get overwhelmed and discouraged and harder to make progress on your goals.
So think: What is most important about the meal time for your family?
- Is it getting your children to be adventurous with food?
- Making sure they are eating some vegetables?
- Do you want to say grace?
- Is it important to you that you teach social skills by having a pleasant conversations?
- Are learning table manners the most important priority for your family?
Choose one or two priorities to address first. For our family, our priority is that the children sit for five minutes and ask to be excused.
Be Explicit about Your Rules
Once you choose your priorities, communicate them to your children. Print out the Meal Time Rules printable and explain which rule you’re working on as a family.
(Read why it is so important to use visuals and pictures with your children here.)
Laminate the chart and circle the 1-2 rules that are your priority in a dry erase marker (use washable dry erase markers – you’ll thank me later). Display the chart in your dining area so your children can see it.
The rules on our Meal Time Rules printable are:
- Sit in your chair
- Say please
- Use your spoon and fork
- Wipe your hands and face with napkin
- Ask to be excused
- Say thanks for the meal
- Clear dishes from the table
These are the basic rules we use in our family for our toddler and school-age child.
Focus on Gradual Improvements
“If everything is important, then nothing is.” ― Patrick Lencioni
As discussed above, make sure you’ve figured out your priorities. More than anything, you want meal time to be pleasant. So only focus on your one or two priorities and let other troubling habits slide for now. They can be important later.
Ideally, my husband and I want to be able to start mealtime with grace, have the two children sit with us for about five minutes, use good table manners, thank the parent who prepared the meal, ask to be excused, and clear their dishes to the sink. This is too much to tackle at once.
Thus, we started with rule #5: Ask To Be Excused. We worked on it for weeks as the main priority. During this time, we let the other manners issues slide while we built a habit. Then we moved on to different challenges and found it was easier to address them.
A WORD ABOUT PICKY EATING
You’ll notice I did not include any rules like don’t play with your food, eat what’s on your plate, or taste everything. This was on purpose.
Maybe you have heard the conventional wisdom, “children won’t starve themselves.” One of our children is a very selective eater as part of a medically diagnosed sensory issues. This child is not spoiled nor is our child being controlling (whatever that means – but I’ve heard this nonsense before!)
Our child is in the minority of children who would rather starve than eat a non-preferred food. I’ve watched this child attempt to gag down the tiniest shreds of vegetables and get sick in the process. This is not how my family is choosing to live and eat right now.
We choose to eat vegetables around this child that she can tolerate the look and smell of in order to keep meal time pleasant. Our other child willing eats anything. In this season of life we model healthy eating for her, and at another season, we will work with specialists to address the eating issues in a respectful manner.
You do you. If your values around food are different in this season of life, feel free to amend the meal time rules accordingly for your family.
You Can Have Better Family Meals
Family meal time doesn’t need to be chaos and it doesn’t need to be a joyless experience in enforcing rules. Print our Meal Time Rules and choose your priorities. The key to better meal times is to focus on your priorities and practice those. Then you can look forward to better mealtimes.
Get the Meal Time Rules printable here.