The evening meal can be a stressful time of the day. Hungry and tired kids, homework, after school activities and in my case it is often just me managing it all.
But most nights I actually enjoy sitting down with the kids to have our evening meal. It is one of the few times now where I have them all together and it is such a lovely way to leave whatever has happened in the lead up behind us and chat about the good things that have happened in our days.
It does take work to make this happen though and here are some of the things I do for an easier and more enjoyable dinner time:
(1). Involve the kids in planning the meals
Planning meals ahead and avoiding a hectic lead up to meal time is important for me. It means that I am much calmer and in a more jovial mood by the time I sit down to eat with them. By allowing the kids to help me plan, they feel that their needs have been taken into account and there is less dissatisfaction with what I serve up.
(2). Have a set time range for the evening meal
My children like routine and having a set meal time allows them to know when they will be fed. For us whilst we still have little ones, this means that we eat early. It is easy for the toddler and preschooler to move past their hunger and not eat a proper meal because it is too late. We aim to eat around 5.30pm.
(3). Eat at the table
This allows the meal to be more family focused with all of us (minus dad, who is still at work on the week days) sitting around the table and it is conducive to conversation.
(4). Have the kids set the table
It is important for them to understand the work that goes into the family meal. By each having a small job to do, they become more involved in the meal time process. The older kids, often contribute to the preparation of the meal as well.
(5). Serve age appropriate portions
I went to a parenting seminar run by Tweedle Child and Family Health Services, on eating and toilet training for toddlers a number of years ago. They suggested that when you served up meals for a toddler, halve what you originally put on their plate, then halve it again as this was more likely to be an age appropriate serve. They also went on to explain that a toddler who is hungry will ask for more, but they can be overwhelmed by large amounts of food on their plate.
(6). Turn off distractions
I love having music on around the house, but even that goes off at meal time, as it can easily distract the children. No devices are to be brought to the table and I also let any phone calls go through to message bank, so that I am not leaving the table and being distracted myself.
(7). Role model appropriate behaviour
Children will follow the example set for them, so I always try to model the behaviour that I would like them to replicate. For me, someone who is not crazy about a number of vegetables, this means eating those vegetables without complaint!
(8). Encourage conversation
Meal time is probably my greatest source of information of what is going on a at school and kinder. They have had time to unwind and relaxed a bit, so I find with a few open ended questions, like “What did you play at lunchtime?” and “Who did you play with at kinder?” they start the kids off on interesting stories about their days.
We have been doing this for so long now, if there is no conversation even the preschooler will ask “So who wants to talk about their day?”.
The older kids look forward to this time too and many evenings now we will be chatting about all sorts of things like government policy, the current state of the Australian cricket team and who would win in a battle between a shark and a bear, well after everyone has finished their meal.
(9). Remove the battle lines
We have modified our approach to meals over the years. Originally, we used to offer dessert after every meal and I have to admit, it often became a bargaining element, for example “Eat 3 more bites, then you can have dessert.” However as the children got older, they would ask before eating those extra spoonfuls, “What is for dessert?”, to see if it was worth eating those extra spoonfuls or not. The end of meal time could become a battle over how much needed to be eaten.
To avoid this scenario, we agreed then in our family meeting, that we would have dessert twice a week, Sunday and Tuesday and the children would get to eat it regardless of whether they ate their main meal or not. This was under the explicit understanding that once meal time finishes, there is no further option of eating food for the rest of the evening. If the children choose not to eat their meal, I do not discuss it with them, other than to explain to them that it is their decision not to eat their meal.
There were nights after not eating their meal, that one of the kids (mainly the youngest ones, as the older ones don’t bother telling me any more) will tell me that they are hungry. I aim to be empathetic, calm and explain to them that they can have breakfast in the morning. This does not always end quietly or without tears, however it rarely happens more than one night in a row and happens infrequently on a whole.
(10). Focus on the big issues only
To keep the tone of the evening meal light, I try to not comment on every single thing each child does that is not ideal (otherwise that could be the only conversation going on some evenings). I have core behaviours that I expect the children to meet and will monitor those, but if they accidentally slurp their spaghetti, or if the younger ones use their hands occasionally when trying to cut up their food, I let these go. Too much negativity can bring the mood down and close off conversation.
All families are different, but I have found that by doing the above, it means that I actually look forward to meal time with the kids, as opposed to dreading it.
How do you manage the evening meal at your house?