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8 steps to stress-free family mealtimes

A happy young family enjoying dinner at homeMealtimes. Aren’t they wonderful?

Children helping set the table. A family chatting and eating. A parent watching with pride as their children savour every mouthful of the delicious and nutritious meal they’ve prepared …

Or are they more like this?

Children being asked repeatedly to come to the table. First child exclaiming ‘yuck’ at the very site of lovingly prepared meal. Second child having meltdown because plate isn’t pink. Third child crawling under the table pretending to be a cat. Parents taking deep breaths in attempt to contain their irritation.

Mealtimes. Aren’t they painful?

When you have young children, mealtimes can be stressful and frustrating. Children can be fussy, messy and wasteful. Not to mention downright rude with their harsh meal critiques (“ewww … this is YUCK!”). Not exactly subtle.

But it doesn’t ALWAYS have to be like this. Sure, the reality is you’ll have good nights and bad nights but if you start early and be consistent, soon the good nights will start to outnumber the bad.

Here are our steps to happy healthy family mealtimes

Step One: Time it right

If your children are whinging, fussy and restless at dinner time it is worth considering the possibility that they are tired. Try making dinner time a bit earlier and you might find them a little less crazy and a little more willing to sit down and try new foods.

Step Two: Give them warning

When your children are busy elsewhere give them a five-minute warning to finish up what they’re doing before dinner time. Make sure they hear you and do this every night so it becomes part of the routine.

Step Three: Introduce a transitional routine

Teach children that it’s important to wash your hands before dinner and make it part of the mealtime routine. You could also use this ‘transitional’ time to have them help set the table, introducing them to the concept of helping out around the house. Even a two-year-old can help with chores, putting down placemats or taking cutlery to the table.

Step Four: Eat at the table

Much has been said about the benefits of family meals at the table. Sitting around the table allows a family to break away from all of life’s distractions and come together. Taking this time to be together gives family members the chance to talk about their days and open up about anything that might be worrying them. It also allows parents to model proper table manners, healthy eating and important social skills for their children to learn.

Step Five: Don’t focus on the food (or lack of eating)

Mealtimes can easily turn into a fight over what your child isn’t eating. By all means, encourage your child to try new food but it might help if you make mealtimes about more than just the food. Some fussy eaters think they don’t have to come to the table – because they’re “NOT going to EAT THAT!” – but you should insist that all family members sit down, whether they eat or not. If mealtimes are less stressful and more pleasant your fussy eater will benefit – they’ll be able to watch others try new foods and they might even surprise you by tasting something from their plate, when their fussiness is not the focus of the mealtime.

Step Six: Teach good manners and insist on them

Teach your children some good manners and calmly remind them to use them. Toddlers can be told ‘we don’t throw food’ and preschoolers can be taught to use their cutlery correctly and ‘don’t talk with your mouth full’. Tell your children that it is polite to stay at the table until everyone is finished eating or ask if you can leave. Encourage children to take their plates to the sink. And remember – if you want your children to learn good table manners then the adults in the house need to use them too.

Step Seven: Be consistent

Children are happier when they know what to expect and what is expected of them. If you want your mealtimes to be more pleasant then it is important to be consistent. Build a routine around your family circumstances and make dinner at the table the rule, not the exception. Insist on good manners but make an effort to keep dinnertime calm and pleasant.

Step Eight: Be realistic

OK, so you can follow all these steps but the reality is that sometimes food will still be declared ‘disgusting!’, your child will still throw a tantrum because she has the wrong colour plate and the toddler will still pretend to be a cat rather than eat dinner. There will still be nights when you’ll wonder why you bother and there will also be nights when you decide to throw the routine out the window and have a family ‘lounge picnic’ while watching Frozen for the 100th time. It is important to have routines, expectations and standards but it is also important to remember that kids will be kids and the most important things is to have happy, calm mealtimes and the occasional fun break from the usual.

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