Easy ways to take the stress out of family dinners

Chances are you’ve heard about all of the studies showing the benefits of sharing a family meal. But when it comes to dining with small children, it’s easy for a family meal to go from pleasant to stressful. 

Getting a healthy meal on the table after a long day of work and activities is challenging: How do you get picky eaters to eat, manners to be used, everyone to sit down and most importantly keep stress levels to a minimum? Here are some suggestions to make family dinners just a little bit easier on everyone.

Offer the right pre-dinner snacks
Letting children have a snack right before dinner can be the perfect set-up for a stressful dinner – but then again, so is listening to a child complain about how hungry he or she is while you’re making dinner. Instead of banning a pre-dinner snack, let children snack on easy-to-prepare vegetables such as carrots, snap peas or celery. If they’re really hungry, they’ll eat without complaining – and get some extra nutrients in their diet.

Don’t make dinner the most nutritiously-important meal of the day
That doesn’t mean that dinner shouldn’t be nutritious, it just means that you don’t want to have to spend dinner bribing children to eat their greens. Make sure plenty of healthy foods have been eaten throughout the day and that all dinner options are nutrient dense. Focus on enjoying time together and not on being the food police.

Establish a one-bite rule
Instead of making children eat all their veggies, be content with one bite of everything. It encourages children to try new foods and to re-try foods they don’t think they like. It might take some time, but before you know it they’ll be following the one-bite rule without being reminded – and they might even fall in love with some new foods.

Please picky eaters
Making a separate meal for picky eaters is time consuming and exhausting. Many parents choose to do this because it avoids the dinner battle. An easy way to transition away from cooking separate meals is to always include one thing you know your picky eater will want to eat. Portion everything onto the plate equally – but enforce the one-bite rule before offering a second helping. This way you all get the same healthy meal and you avoid a child complaining about being hungry an hour after refusing to eat dinner.

Let the kids get up when they’re done
Some children take forever to eat a meal and others zip right through and are ready to go play. Young children may not be developmentally ready to sit quietly and wait for you to finish your meal. As they get older, their attention spans will increase and they’ll be more willing and able to engage in family conversations. Until then, let them ask to be excused once they’re done and when everyone else is finished bring them back to the table to help clear the dishes and do after-dinner chores.

Keep the conversation upbeat
Dinner may be the first time the whole family is together during the day, so avoid airing grievances or asking loaded questions. Talk about all the great things that happened that day, what you’re looking forward to, what you’ve enjoyed and what you’re grateful for. Dinnertime is a wonderful opportunity for a family to take the time to reflect on their blessings.

Give yourself a minute before sitting down
The last thing you want to do is bring stressful energy to the dinner table. If you had a rough day, or if getting dinner on the table stressed you out, make sure to take some time to relax before sitting down to eat. Even if you only have a few minutes, take a few deep breaths and try to put the day behind you so you can switch gears and enjoy a relaxing family meal.