My family could very easily sit down, consume our dinner, and clear the table within eight minutes. The kids inhale food (or protest the menu), conversation is quick, and then we move on to the next thing. Like many families with small children, dinner time can be both hilarious and frustrating. But we are committed to this crazy table time, and right now, albeit may be fleeting, things are going surprisingly well. Therefore I’ve decided to branch out from my regular genre and write about this rare moment. We have not mastered dinner time (and never will) but here are a few things that keep us sane.
Eight ideas to help make the dinner hour with small kids more enjoyable (and last longer than eight minutes).
1. We meal plan. My lovely friend Julianne got me going on this. She found a few friends who eat similarly and set up a simple google doc and calendar. Every six weeks I am responsible to post 3 complete dinner recipes and corresponding grocery lists. The other five weeks I have the benefit of other people’s ideas. It’s been a life saver because even with the internet, cookbooks, and mac and cheese, somedays I still need inspiration! Meal planning helps me stay less stressed from the very beginning.
2. That being said, we often repeat the winning meals. There are a few things my kids LOVE and I am not ashamed to re-purpose them in a variety of forms. For example, we often have “Mexican Monday” and I make this beans and rice dish and serve it ten different ways. We have it in bowls with toppings, in tacos, baked in tortillas, alongside quesadillas, etc.
3. We always begin by lighting a candle and saying one thing we are thankful for. Insert cheesy music if you must but for us, we are reminded of Christ’s presence when we light the candle and it gives us a moment to actually “start” the meal. Following our eight minutes plus, we take turns blowing it out and saying one thing we would like to change in the world. It is a quiet way to pray and remind our kids that, in the midst of it all, we have hope for the world. I first shared this tradition last Advent.
4. Everyone helps. Both my kids help with dinner prep in someway. As long as I give them (and their Pokemon cards) fair warning, they’re usually hungry enough to help expedite preparations. Warning: having a 3 year old set the table can end up like this.
5. We decide when and what we are eating and our kids decide how much they want to eat. I read this nugget in a waiting room once and have stuck to it ever since. I will confess, for the most part, my kids are not picky eaters. But there are enough struggles in the world, making my kids finish every last bite is not one I am going to fight. I do, however, give them reasonable portions know they may ask for seconds.
6. Each person asks one interesting question during dinner. This is the latest addition to operation-extend-dinner-past-8-minutes. Everyone has to ask one question that we could all potentially answer. For example, last night’s question was “If you could only eat one kind of fruit for the rest of your life what would it be?” With a completely serious look, Ben, who is 6 ½ leans in and says, “Um, can there be a dip?” As in, if he picks apples can he have peanut butter for dipping? We’ve also learned that Ben wants to win a free trip to LA and Sam wants to be a zebra for the day.
7. We stay at the table slightly longer than anyone really wants to. This isn’t an attempt at torture (although it feels like it sometimes). I have found that if my kids don’t like their dinner, (for reasons like it’s not on the green plate or they just want pretzels), they have trouble sitting at the table. But if we can keep them entertained (see number 6) for a bit longer they often just keep eating without even realizing it.
8. If I ever get around the making dessert (not often), I do it on a day when I’m not that confident my kids will like the food because: bribery.
What works to keep you sane during dinner with kids? Leave a comment!
(Feature photo credit C. Flanders)