Q: How do I get my active, rowdy young kids (including a toddler) to sit at the dinner table throughout dinner? I have had to wipe spaghetti sauce off my couch and chase them into their seats. It’s exhausting! And yelling doesn’t seem to be working.
A: As we are raising our kids, we are anxious and excited for a quiet, civil meal, but sometimes we expect children to act beyond their developmental capabilities. During time-outs, most children can handle sitting still for the same number of minutes as their age. So, a calm 25-minute meal with a 3-year-old probably isn’t possible every day!
These limitations don’t mean letting your children run off after a minute and plug into their iPad. It’s good to have high expectations. Beyond healthy eating, family meals benefit wellness, bonding and connection; studies show that as kids become teens, having family meals positively affects their decision making and safety.
Here are a few things you can do to make the most of mealtime with your kids:
1. Digital free: Carve out mindful time. Say you are putting your cell phone away as you call your kids to the meal. Eliminate reasons for them to get up during the meal by saying, “Wash your hands and use the bathroom. I want to see your beautiful cheeks for the entire meal!”
2. Give your kids a role at the beginning and end of the meal. One child puts out napkins to set the table and the same child tosses the napkins like basketballs into the trash as the meal ends.
3. Involve kids in helping to plan the menu, shopping for groceries, watching you cook or prepping food. Involvement works wonders for meal engagement.
4. You want children to be hungry for good food but not ravenous with hunger. Feed them a small after-school snack. If there are no hunger cues, children get distracted more easily, which leads to the hysterical flinging of spaghetti.
Rituals help shape success. The most successful part of our family meal with my 6- and 8-year-old kids is BPOD: talking about the best part of our day. If my kids leave early, I say, “Come tell me about your BPOD.”
Remember, this is a marathon, so embrace the days your meal mimics that three-ring circus. Every tiny success today primes children for lifelong connections and healthier habits as adults.