Surviving Dinner – Family Dinnertime and Feeding Kids

Lots of recipes claim they can be cooked in 20 minutes or less.  Some nights are so busy, even that’s too long.  “Surviving Dinner” is a series that is not about good wifeing, mothering, or cooking.  It’s about surviving.  It’s for those nights when you’re tempted to write “fast food” on the menu, but cooking at home will save you a few dollars, a few hundred calories, and loads of mommy-guilt.  Recipes found here can be cooked quickly and have minimal prep and clean-up.  Some may require a little pre-planning, but many won’t.

This week’s Surviving Dinner post isn’t a recipe, it’s more of an overview of how we have managed dinnertime in our home.  There are lots of different strategies used by lots of different families.  Some kids go to bed pretty early so they eat separately.  Some parents choose to have dinnertime without the kids so they can have some uninterrupted one-on-one time in the evening.  Some families serve 2 different meals (one for the adults and one that is more kid-friendly) but all eat together.  Some require their kids to be a member of the “clean-plate club.”  Some will save their kids’ leftovers and re-serve it to them at the next meal in an effort to get them to eat their veggies.  Others have a non-negotiable policy – once you leave the table, you get no more food until breakfast.

As a family with two full-time working parents we decided very early on that:

  1. Dinnertime would be quality family time.
  2. I don’t have time to worry about making 2 different meals.
  3. I’d rather pick the food battle with a 1 or 2 year old instead of a 6 or 7 year old.

Translation:  We all eat at the same time, and we all eat the same thing.

Even before Conlan could self-feed, he would spend dinnertime in his high chair at the table.  He didn’t get his first tooth until 14 months, but on his first birthday we stopped all bottles and baby food – sippy cups and table food only.  If we had something that was difficult for him to eat (like soup), he got a deconstructed version of noodles, chicken, and carrots.  If I felt he didn’t have enough on his plate to fill his little belly I would supplement with yogurt, fruit, avocado, or a piece of string cheese.

Fast forward a little bit, and we started to realize Conlan was eating more “supplemental” food than mainstream dinner, so we adjusted our strategy and got a little more firm about the food while relaxing our “don’t leave the table until you’re finished eating” rule.  During this period (somewhere between age 2 1/2 – 3) he would look at his plate, ask for “something else,” and upon learning he wasn’t getting any other options, declare himself full and get down from the table.  After Rusty and I finished our plates, we would just leave his there for the remainder of the night.  Inevitably we would hear, “I’m hungry,” but our consistent response was, “Your dinner is still on the table.  You are welcome to finish it any time.”  And, predictably, most nights he would graze at his plate and it would be empty by bedtime.

We still use that trick here & there, but our most recent strategy is to require that Conlan sit at the table until he is finished, or else stand in time-out in the kitchen until we are all finished eating and dinnertime is over.

A few caveats:  we have no clean-plate club in our house.  I don’t re-serve food that wasn’t finished.  If Conlan really, truly hates something he doesn’t have to eat it.  He just has to try 2-3 bites, and if he doesn’t want it, I’m happy to give him fruit instead.  I don’t serve seafood because Rusty hates it, and I never cook beets because I don’t care for them, so I feel it’s only fair for Conlan to have the same right of refusal on some things, too.  More often than not, though, after a couple bites he realizes it’s not so terrible.

And that’s the way dinner works at our place.  There’s certainly no right or wrong way in anyone’s home.  This is the way we’ve chosen to do dinner – in a way that fits our family, our schedule, our lifestyle, and our parenting philosophy.

Let’s be clear.  This hasn’t resulted in the Perfect Family Dinnertime as seen on TV.  There have been tears (sometimes mine), tantrums (usually not mine), and chaotic evenings.  However, there have also been many delightfully easy family meals.  And while I would never in a million years call my kid a “good eater,” I believe he’s much better than he would have been had we not been firm.

Eating at other people’s houses is still a battle I rarely pick since Conlan would rather play with unfamiliar toys than eat.  I’m embarrassed to say he still takes his morning milk in a sippy – and we still warm it up.  I plan to do things differently with the next kiddo – like front-load veggies and hold off on the fruits.  And I’m sure that no matter what we do, or which behavior we try to tweak next, there will be more chaos at times.  But for now, this is how we have managed to wildly outweigh the good over the bad and make dinnertime a time of behavior-shaping, emotional & physical health, and family togetherness!

Wondering what I’m doing here?  Learn more about the idea behind Surviving Dinner.

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