Family Dinner Stress – 20 Tips to Ease it
Family dinner stress is real. Whether you are frustrated about the lack of enthusiasm and respect at the table or just feel overwhelmed here are 20 tips to make dinner time better.
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Family Dinner Stress
“Is this what’s for dinner mom?”
“I don’t like this.”
“Can I have something else?”
There are few things more frustrating than when you make a nice meal for your family only to have the kids not eat it.
I mean, what’s a parent to do when their kids won’t even “taste” the food that they worked hard to make? Well, the reality is that there is no simple solution that will make your picky eater more adventurous overnight. But what you can control is your approach to meal times as well as other food opportunities throughout the day.
20 Tips for More Joyful Family Dinners
While no one family is unique, here are 20 tips that when practiced regularly can help reduce family dinner stress.
One. Cut yourself some slack.
Often times we get upset because we feel like a failure. “Why are my kids so picky? It must be my fault.” Be reassured that it’s not all your fault. Picky eating behaviors are usually the result of many different factors and putting the blame on yourself (or your cooking) is not going to help.
Two. Follow the Division of Responsibility.
Developed by childhood feeding expert Ellyn Satter, the division of responsibility says that the parents or caregivers decide what, when, and where to eat, while the child decides how much to eat and whether or not to eat it. This concept is life-changing in that it helps you realize that you don’t actually have control over whether or not they even want to taste it, taking that negative pressure away.
Three. Serve meals family style.
Serve meals family style and let everyone serve themselves. This will give kids more control and independence over what they choose to put on their plates. It also adheres to the Division of Responsibility.
Four. Gently encourage a tasting bite.
Encourage a tasting bite, but don’t nag, force, or bribe them to taste food. Even if it’s a food you are 99% certain they would like if they tasted it, they will not like it if they have already decided they don’t like it. Instead, encourage them to maybe just smell it or touch it. Many kids have sensory issues that make them less adventurous eaters. If your child has a small repertoire and regularly dismisses new food, consider meeting with a dietitian who specializes in feeding issues.
Five. Don’t force or bribe a child to finish their food.
Ok, you get the idea. A lot of these suggestions go back to the Division of Responsibility. Letting your child decide how much to eat helps them learn to trust their body. This is crucial for fostering intuitive eaters with a good relationship to food.
If your child is prone to not eating dinner but always having room for dessert, try serving dessert at the same time as dinner. This may sound counter-intuitive, but it actually teaches kids that dessert is not a reward for eating your veggies, it’s just another food to be eaten and enjoyed.
Six. Make sure that everyone at the table likes at least one food that is being served.
This is very different from being a short-order cook. It simply means that there is at least something liked and familiar on the table for your little eaters. The liked food could be something as simple as a side of plain rice, bread, or pasta. That way at least no one will have a totally empty plate. That said, do plan meals that your child likes on the weekly menu–there is no need to sit down to an unfamiliar or unliked dinner every night.
Seven. Don’t comment on your child’s eating.
Don’t make a big deal about what your child is eating or not eating. In fact, don’t even talk about it. The more attention you draw to their picky eating, the more likely they are to continue with it. Likewise, praising “good eating” can also affect a child’s relationship with food and lead them to seek external approval rather than relying on their inner cues. So skip the food talk and instead focus on a non-food conversation such as how everyone’s day was or a favorite topic such as sports.
Eight. Let your kids lead the dinner conversation.
Oftentimes, you are better off just letting your kids lead the conversation, even if it’s silly or you don’t even know what they are talking about. (Yes, as a mom of two boys over the years I have struggled to “be in on” various topics such as Ninjago, Minecraft, and, currently, sports!) As long as they are happy and chatting it makes dinner more fun and that is a plus.
Nine. Teach respect.
If your child makes a fuss about what is being served politely tell them they don’t have to eat it. If they continue to make a fuss and you know it might set you over the edge or risk all-out chaos erupting at the table, politely tell them that you worked hard to prepare this meal for the family and that they can go up to their room until they are ready to be nice.
Ten. Focus on Manners.
As mentioned above, while deciding to not eat or even taste their food is ok, being rude is not. In addition to all-around respect, instill good manners–such as saying please and thank you, putting their napkin on their lap, not using phones at the table, etc. One of the best ways to teach the manners you want to see is to role model them yourself. Of course, remember your ultimate goal is to ease family dinner stress, so don’t get too serious about the manner stuff. Also be age-realistic, for example, little ones may not be able to sit straight or even still for very long.
Eleven. Cook only one meal on most nights.
While it’s ok to cook different entrees every now and then, make it a habit to cook only one meal on most nights. Otherwise, you will end up an exhausted short-order cook and the kids will come to expect that you can always just make them what they like or want. The exception is if there are food allergy reasons why you can’t do this.
Twelve. Offer fun toppings and condiments to increase food acceptance.
Increase meal acceptance by leaving foods plain or separate or offering an array of fun toppings or condiments (e.g., pickles, ketchup, chopped nuts) that they can jazz up the food with. A little extra butter and a dash of sea salt can also help.
Thirteen. Practice strategic meal planning.
Plan meals so that there are at least 2-3 dinners that everyone loves each week. So balance that Veggie Chili dinner with the Pasta and Meatballs dinner the following night. Having everyone excited about at least a few meals every week will help elevate the overall mood at the table.
Fourteen. Teach your kids that not every night will be their favorite food night.
But also teach your kids that not every night will be their favorite food night, and that’s ok. We eat for pleasure because foods taste good, but we also eat for nourishment. Some days the food they eat will be higher on the pleasure scale and other days it will be lower.
Fifteen. Have your kids help plan dinner.
Enlist your kids to help plan the weekly dinners. This may not be an every-week activity but is important to do now and then. If you are really in a rut, you could even let the kids take over and plan the whole week!
Sixteen. Have your kids help set and clear the dinner table.
Having your kids help with setting and clearing the table will make them more involved with the efforts of dinner and therefore more likely to appreciate it. Plus it really is a big help to the cook!
Seventeen. Encourage your child to help you prepare dinner.
Whether it’s rinsing salad greens, sauteing veggies, or adding seasonings, there are so many ways they can be involved. Before you know it, they will be asking to make one of their favorite meals. (My older son started making these cod nuggets when he was around 9).
Eighteen. Enlist friends.
If your child has a friend that is a good eater, invite them over for dinner. Seeing their friend enjoy the food that is served may inspire your child to try new food too, maybe not right away, but in time.
Nineteen. Make sure your kids come to the table hungry!
We are not talking starving here, but being a little hungry at meal time is actually good. (Read more about hunger and fullness here.) Some families find that “closing up the kitchen” for snacking at least 1 hour before dinner helps. If your kids are super hungry and dinner is not yet ready, serve a veggie platter to tide them over.
Twenty. Give yourself a break, literally.
Take the pressure off yourself and get some cooking help by ordering takeout, serving healthy ready-prepared meals, or going out to eat. Whether you do this regularly or sporadically, don’t feel guilty. Not only will you get a break from cooking, but if your kids make a sour statement about the food you won’t take it personally since you didn’t make it! In addition, having your kids eat restaurant food will expose them to new cuisines and flavors, helping them become more adventurous eaters.
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Disclosure: Some of the links below are Amazon affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense, Revised and Updated Edition, by Ellyn Satter
The Picky Eater’s Recovery Book, by Thomas, Becker, and Eddy
How to Raise an Intuitive Eater: Raising the Next Generation with Food and Body Confidence, by Severson and Brooks