3 Ways to Improve Family Dinner

Nutrition, Behavior & More

Picture this…

You’ve just worked a long day and grabbed the kids from school/daycare. You are racing home to begin working furiously to cook a 20-minute meal for everyone. You’ve committed to sitting down for a family dinner together, so you are making it happen! While cooking, you also decide to quickly make a quesadilla to add to your 4-year-old’s plate. You know he’s tired, so you’re pretty sure he will meltdown at the chicken fajitas option you’re serving everyone else. 

When everyone finally gets to the table, your preschooler starts to meltdown anyway. The mashed avocado you served is touching the quesadilla. Even though you know in your mind that he plans to dip it in the avocado to eat it like he always does, this triggers an upset.  You’ve also cut the quesadilla (how dare you!!!) AND given him rice, which he didn’t want. All the while, your 2-year-old is begging for milk, which is not served at the dinner table (and she knows it). Simultaneously, the baby is throwing handfuls of rice and black beans on the floor.

I’ve been there.

We all have. And at that moment you think: Why do I even bother?!? Why bother with an attempt to eat as a family or to try to please everyone? Instead of these thoughts, in the chaos, briefly step away. Take a big deep breath, and let the frustration exit as quickly as it ushered itself in! Do NOT take this personally. The truth is what you’re attempting and what you’re making happen – that family dinner – DOES matter. It is worth it. Believe me.

So let’s unpack the food meltdowns and the no milk rule. Let me leave you with an understanding of why family dinners are worth the effort (or sometimes, it feels more appropriate to say worth the fight), and how to improve the dining experience for everyone!

1. Approach Food Meltdowns Calmly

Meltdowns about food are SO common for young children. Often times, decisions around food are the few (if not only) areas where kids feel that they can exert control. Thus, it’s a place where they can test boundaries and limits. Dinner time is also when exhaustion and frustrations from other parts of the day start to come out. It is critical to remember that the meltdown might not actually be about the food at all. In fact, more likely, their little brains are hitting their mental-processing capacity limit for the day. They’re getting more tired and less patient (and so are we!). At that point, they just can’t manage another thing.

When your kids are at the point of a meltdown with food, the best thing to do is to respond calmly. Try to practice compassion while still being realistic in these moments of big feelings for little ones. It is doable to both maintain an expectation while also striving to display some empathy.

Give this a shot.

 “You don’t like the avocado touching your quesadilla? I believe you. Let me move it to the side and cut off the part that touched.” 

“I’m sorry I didn’t cut your food exactly how you were hoping. Let’s try and eat it like this tonight. Next time, we can talk about how you might want it cut. If you chose not to eat it tonight because you don’t like how it is cut, that’s OK, but I am not making a second one.”

Set and hold the boundaries, but also reflect kind understanding. I know firsthand this is easier said than done

Once you lay it out and everyone has taken a few deep breaths, you can leave it alone. Your child is likely going to eat the quesadilla, but he or she will be more successful without nagging and coercion from you throughout the rest of dinner.

2. Save Room for New Foods

Once your child is eating solid foods, milk should not be served with meals. The reasoning behind this is that liquid quickly fills up a child’s stomach with limited space. A liquid like milk, which has fat, carbohydrates, and proteins, will also satiate them and prevent them from having as much interest in food.

Meal times are key times for exposing your children to new flavors, textures, and nutrients. Simply-stated, milk gets in the way of that intentional exposure. We want milk to enrich a nutrient dense, balanced diet – not crowd it out. 

Finally, evening milk can disrupt sleep. As explained in this post, the sugar in milk can not only make it difficult for your child to settle down but can also create middle-of-the-night wakings. If you have a child between 1 and 2 years old, you may still be relying on breastmilk / formula / milk for calories for your toddler. In that case, the recommendation is to offer the cup at snack times instead of during family dinner, so that solids can be prioritized as the main form of nutrition.

3. Modeling and Connecting During Family Dinner

Nutritional Advantages

Research shows that families who sit down to eat dinner together typically have kids who grow up to be more adventurous eaters, willing to eat fruits, vegetables, and proteins. 

Kids need both exposure and modeling when it comes to trying food. Both of those things are very simple to do at a family dinner.  When you’re sitting with your kids, you are modeling in front of them just by the foods you have on your plate. They watch what you are putting in your mouth. As they observe you eating foods they perhaps haven’t had the courage or interest to try yet, they gradually build a motivation to do the same.

Kids also need repeated exposure to foods before they even consider trying them. Dinner time together is a great way to do that! It can be hard to put foods on your child’s plate that you’re pretty sure they will not touch. However, most often, family meals result in greater varieties and more sophisticated foods being served, which make it much easier to expose your child to increased options. We also know that kids are much more likely to eventually try a food when at the table with their family. It is not just about if they eat it; even just having a small piece of each food on their plate or at the table is a win.

Relational Advantages

At least three times a week, make it a goal to sit down as a family. Dinner time is a time to pause, sharing the day with each other, free from screens and distractions. Aside from the nutritional benefits, research also reflects that children who partake in family meals have stronger bonds and deeper relationships with their parents and siblings as they grow. 

Recognize that even amongst the chaos, the meltdowns, and the mess, the conversations you hold during those few minutes spent sitting at the table and eating together are what your kids are going to remember as they are going to bed. Your effort is worthwhile.

These moments together truly do make a difference.

Kim McDevitt is a Registered Dietitian (RD) with a passion in guiding families on how to make cleaner, better-for-you wellness choices.  Specializing in family nutrition, she has worked with both children and adults to help them reach their nutrition goals.  When not coaching at an individual level, Kim is working in the Consumer Packaged Goods world.  She spends her time supporting the initiatives of many of the brands that you find lining the aisles of your favorite grocery story.  Kim has over 10  years of experience working on nutrition strategy and education, content development, and consumer and media relations. Her insights as a nutrition expert and consumer advocate add value to all of her work.   She’s a passionate advocate for clean labels and healthier products.

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