How can we make family dinners less unpleasant?

How can we make family dinner hours go smoothly? We have three children. ages 1, 3, and 5, and it seems as though every night when we eat dinner together, someone winds up angry or in tears. My husband had several brothers and sisters and remembers family dinners as a pleasant time. I was an only child, and I remember dinners as a good timto talk to my parents. At our house, even though I cook things that most everyone likes, there’s always someone who refuses to eat what is served. There is so much chaos and hurry that in 15 minutes we¹re all ready to leave the table. Since it takes an hour to cook and an hour to clean up, it hardly seems worth the trouble. By the way, we get along pretty well as a family at other times!

Guess what? A smooth “family dinner time” with preschool-age children is only seen on television commercials for frozen pizza.

I’m sure your childhood memories of enjoyable family dinners are true but they may be memories from when you were older than 3 or 5. How many other memories do you have of events at those ages? Dinners that took place when you were older might well have been as pleasant as you recall. although perhaps not all the time.

Once you were school age, the social experience of being with your parents and family was important, and you had the verbal and cognitive skills to take part in conversation. Your day, by then, was probably sufficiently complex that your parents were genuinely interested in hearing about it.

Right now, your children are at the ages when dinner is the time to eat, and eating doesn¹t always take much time. In fact, manyyoung children eat best early in the day and only want a light snack and milk at dinner. The child who eats a scrambled egg in 24 bites when the carpool is waiting may inhale his hamburger and carrots in three minutes that evening.

A young child doesn¹t want to sit still unless he is eating or being entertained. You can tell him stories or sing songs to keep him at the table, but that is not going to enhance your dining experience!

Here are some questions to ask yourself about “family dinner time”:

• What do you want to accomplish by having a family dinner? Is it a chance for all of you to intereact and talk? Is it necessary for eating to be a part of that interaction?

• Do you see dinner as a time to teach table manners? Does the teaching have to be connected to the family social time? Are your expectations for good behavior causing you to lose your temper?

• Do you and your husband like to talk to each other during dinner? Do your children want to listen? Do you want them to listen?

• Does the time that you are serving dinner match the time when your children are hungry?

Many families rethink their expectations for dinnertime after they answer these questions. They can then modify their evenings in a variety of ways. In some families, the children, who are often hungry by 5 p.m., are fed early with simple foods that they like. One parent (or both) sits with them, using the time to talk, assist with eating, or teach table manners. The parents may have a snack too, but they postpone their own mealtime until later. After that parents can have their own dinner while the children sit with them or play elsewhere, or they can wait until the kids are asleep to have a private meal.

Once or twice a week, the family may have an early dinner with everyone eating at once. These dinners are treated as special events. (Sabbath or Sunday meals are an excellent way to accomplish this.)  Having family time at breakfast and lunch works well on the weekends without the stresses you've described.

Some families choose to get together over an evening walk, a bedroom “children¹s hour” with stories and conversation, or private times with one parent if he or she has been gone all day.

Parents may cook and clean together for their own later meal, increasing the time they have to talk to each other.  An older child may stay up to be a part of this some nights.

An older child might also enjoy some special out to dinner time with parents.  Learning to eat in a regular restaurant takes practice, and most nice restaurants don’t welcome preschoolers who are just learning!

It sounds as if your goal for a happy family dinnertime isn¹t working now. I¹d suggest you aim for a happy family time and let the fantasy dinners go for a little while!