Good evening ladies and gentlemen! And welcome to another episode of Dinner Time! In this corner, we have the Big Bad DAD, ready to fight to the finish until ALL PLATES ARE CLEAN! And in this corner, we have Terrible Tommy, preparing to push buttons and dig his heels in AT ALL COSTS!

Has dinner at your house ever felt a little like a wrestling match? Both parties are pretty focused on what they want to accomplish at dinner: eating or escaping. For many parents mealtimes can seem like the ultimate, daily power struggle. We can’t cancel them. We can’t throw all of the rules out the window (else plates may be thrown out the window too). We can’t force kids to eat. So how do we deal with the various problems that arise during mealtimes?

Rowdiness & distractions at the table
If your kids seem to bring the playground inside with them when it’s time for dinner, then your main concern is probably making the table a less chaotic place. So think about what rules you would like to see implemented at the table. Are toys allowed? What about electronic devices? Are your kids allowed to get down at any time? Can they read books while they eat? Is playing with their food ok? What happens if someone misbehaves at the table? What’s the protocol for dealing with that?

Once you’ve got some parameters in mind, start slowly introducing them to your dinnertime routine. If you decide on a rule, then stick to your guns and make sure that it’s followed. And remember that one of the best ways to encourage better behavior is to talk about the things that you like to see at the table and commend a kid when you see those things.

“Picky eaters”
First things first: If you are the parent of a picky eater, please don’t call them that within their hearing. If you want a child to have an excuse as to why they can’t try new things, just give them that label. There’s no way to cure pickiness sadly, though there are ways to promote food exploration.

  • Make trying something new exciting(!), with songs, attention, praise.
  • Reward brave eating with a sticker or a special treat.
  • Sneak healthy food in wherever you can get it. Your kid can stay “picky” while you ensure that they’re getting what they need. The Sneaky Chef is a good resource for covert cuisine.
  • Try not to supply your kids with the words, “Don’t you like it?” They might just agree with you while you watch the pool of “kid friendly” food get shallower. Don’t give them too much power to veto food choices with “I don’t like it.” Reintroduce asparagus after a while and see if the response is any different.
  • Don’t watch them too carefully while they’re eating. If they know that you’re sweating about them eating something they’re not too fond of, they just might let you sweat.

Too many rules and expectations
Are clean plates a necessity for fun after-dinner activities? Do you often remind your kids that elbows shouldn’t be on the table? Does messy eating really perturb you? Does burping or talking with one’s mouth full always result in a time-out? Do you require that your child stay at the table until everyone is done eating?

Some rules are necessary for mealtime to go smoothly, but others can add to the tension that dinner can cause. If you find yourself reminding your kids of the things they’re doing wrong too often at mealtimes, try to whittle down your expectations a bit. Table manners are great and you’ll help your kids learn them as they grow, but they don’t all need to be tackled in the first few years. Try not to make meals a punitive time. That will only increase everyone’s feelings of dislike when they gather together to eat.

Have a little fun after dinner
Put off doing the dishes or taking a bath for just a minute and have a little fun. My family has been playing cards or a board game after dinner for years. Having family (and friends) in the same place without other tasks to do is a rare occurrence. Try to capitalize on that together time by breaking out Spot It! (a new favorite at my parents’ house). It’ll make the dinner table a fun place to be even if there’s no food in sight.

Bon appetit!