Before having children, I envisioned nightly family meals around a lovely dinner table with adorable children. The scene in my head was somewhere between a Norman Rockwell painting and an episode of The Brady Bunch.
Yet, as a young parent, I found meal times to be very stressful. I wasn’t prepared for the whining, complaining or emotional outbursts. (I’m referring to my behavior, not the children’s.)
Nothing had equipped me for dining with actual children. The cycle of cook, serve, clean and repeat seemed unending. No matter what meal I presented, someone objected to eating it. By the time I turned my attention to my own food, everyone else had usually finished theirs.
Now that I am a grandmother and Conscious Discipline Certified Instructor, I am frequently asked questions about meal times. It seems my earlier experiences were not unique and many families find meal times to be a struggle.
I am thankful for the skills of Conscious Discipline and I love having the opportunity to share advice I wish someone had given me. Here are some tips for family meal times:
- Jobs – Involve the family in preparing and cleaning up the meal. In looking back, I realize I often thought it easier to do everything myself, but then resented feeling like the cook, server and bus boy in my own home. Jobs allow your family members to serve each other, building a sense of unity, responsibility and self-worth. Assisting with daily tasks also builds your child’s confidence in his abilities.
- Gratitude – Devote some part of the meal time to expressing gratitude— not just for the food, but for each other and the world around you. This focuses your entire family’s attention on the positive.
- Rituals – Create rituals around meal times to connect your family. Move beyond sharing the best part of your day. Instead ask each person questions such as, “How were you helpful today?” and “How was someone else helpful to you?”
- Prepare –Spills and accidents will happen with young children at the table. Come prepared! Have all the supplies you will need for cleaning up messes and replacing dropped silverware right on the table so you don’t spend the meal time jumping up to retrieve things.
- Avoid Power Struggles – You will create power struggles if you attempt to make your child eat. Offer your children a variety of healthy options and encourage them to try new things. If your child dislikes broccoli, attempting to coerce her into eating it is going to end with you feeling frustrated and your child resisting. If your child doesn’t want her food, cover it and place it in the refrigerator. Let her know it will be waiting when she is ready to eat.
- Offer Two Positive Choices – How do you feel when you have no control in a situation? Think about the number of decisions adults make for children vs decisions children make for themselves in a typical day. Offering choices to children is not only empowering; it improves their ability to make choices and stick with them.
When it comes to choices, steer away from open-ended questions like, “What should we have for dinner,” unless you are actually prepared to serve pizza every night. Instead, offer your child two acceptable options such as, “We can have carrots or green beans with dinner. Which choice is better for you?”
- Agreements – Have family agreements about meal times. Agreements are promises you make to each other about how you will conduct yourselves. Post the agreements so each person is reminded of their importance. For young children, it is essential for you to post these agreements in picture form. If “stay seated in your chair” is one of your agreements, then you would post a photo of the child sitting in his seat. If “chew with your mouth closed” is an agreement, you would post a photo of that as well.
- Food as a reward or punishment – I am frequently asked by both parents and teachers if it is acceptable to take a child’s food away. Using food as a reward or punishment is not advisable. The way we reward and punish children eventually becomes the way they will reward and punish themselves. Utilizing food in this capacity sets the stage for some very unhealthy habits. Instead, use your Conscious Discipline skills to manage meal time conflicts just as you do other conflicts throughout the day.
- Toddlers – When adults perceive a toddler as misbehaving at the table, they often say things such as, “You are telling me you are all done.” All behavior is communication so, it is possible your child is telling you he is all done. At this time, it would be appropriate to put his food away and help him transition away from the table. However, your child’s behavior may not be saying, “all done.” He may be telling you he wants to connect with you or that meatballs make an awesome sound when they hit the tile floor.
Eating with a toddler is an adventure. Remember your toddler learns about the world through his senses. Food is an experience for a young child. Treat your toddler as you would a visitor from another planet. He doesn’t know the social norms and he isn’t supposed to. It is your job and your joy to teach him!
- Older Children – It may be appropriate to ask an older child to leave the table if…
IF the child possesses the skills you are asking him to use.
IF the child’s needs for connection are being met. (“Attention-seeking” behaviors are really connection-seeking behaviors.)
IF the child understands the expectations and consequences ahead of time.
Set the expectation and the consequence like this, “I’ve noticed you and your sister often talk about poop at the dinner table. This is a problem for me because I can’t enjoy my food while that is happening. If you choose to talk about poop at dinner, you will leave the table. What will happen if you talk about poop during dinner?” To indicate understanding, the child should respond with, “I will leave the table.” Clarify, if necessary, and be certain to follow through on the consequence with empathy.
Meal times can be a source of stress. However, they can also be a source of great joy. Having raised my children, I can tell you your nightly family dinners will one day be a happy memory. Somehow the fatigue of preparing and cleaning up fades. You forget the daily frustrations and childish missteps, and simply remember having your entire family together around the table.