A Guide to Family Dinners

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And so it goes: another season whirring by, another set of feet having outgrown his footed pajamas. I take the kitchen scissors and snip off the toe seams so his feet can stretch through; watch two tiny strips of rockets fall to the floor.

Scout will be 2 this summer and it occurs to me we’re again reaching the small window where family rhythms are established. I’ve been working with intention on a handful – the tidying of the train set, morning prayers, hand-washing – but mostly, daily expectations have been vacuumed away with the toast crumbs and Shopkins. Routines? Rhythms? Predictables? There is little to be predicted with a toddler on the loose.

Still, there is one tradition that I miss, one tradition we’ve shelved since Scout’s arrival, one tradition that holds utmost importance in my own short list of future non-negotiables.

family dinner

Family dinner.

Last week, I dusted off an old cookbook for a commemorative rebound into the fine art of slurping together. I’d wanted it to be special, a near-perfect experience to entice us into nightly repetition. I wanted this to stick.

Instead, Scout refused dinner in lieu of a spoon drum solo and Bee slid potatoes around her plate before declaring the red ones to taste like “small and dead caterpillars.” But we did pick up some lessons along the way, small reminders that the table matters far less than the ones gathering around it.

(In other words, slapping salami on a plate and calling it dinner can be just as gladdening if we allow it.)

And so: my own simple guide to family dinners with a pint-sized crowd:

family dinner

BEFORE

Buffer your time.
As in most good things, family dinners require a bit of prep work. Often, I’ll take advantage of Scout’s (increasingly rare) afternoon nap to clear the kitchen counters of stray papers, craft supplies and Ken’s growing collection of ear plugs. While this should take just a few minutes, it inevitably takes 10, as I’ll come across a bill in need of paying, a missing sock to find, or an art project Bee wants to show me. The lesson here is simple: when small children are underfoot, cooking takes twice as long. If I can get a head start and allow plenty of time/space for interruptions, I’m not as prone to losing my temper when Bee wants to know how clouds are formed just as the honey tempura starts to burn.

A few simple ways to prep earlier in the day: Wash and cut all produce, empty the dishwasher, thaw meat, gather spices, double-check your supply of necessary ingredients.

family dinner

Consider the meal.
Dinnertime needn’t be fancy, is all. While I have visions of someday serving my family a celebratory four-course meal every now and again, we’re still a far cry from salad forks and candlelight. Think of foods your entire family will eat (aforementioned salami included). For us, it’s potatoes; we’re nuts about ’em. So rather than whipping up my usual skillet of hash browns, I dug up a recipe for bay leaf potatoes from The Forest Feast, just to dress up the everyday a bit. The flavors are the same but the presentation is different, so it feels special and unique even if it’s not.

A simple way to spruce up your everyday grub: Switch out your utensils! If you normally give your kids a fork for their potatoes, see how they fare with a soup spoon, or chopsticks. Or, offer your fanciest flatware, even if it’s just for mac-and-cheese. One friend I know declares “Giant Night,” where everyone’s forced to try their hand at eating a bowl of soup with tiny espresso spoons. Get creative and offer a playful environment – the goal is an enjoyable experience for all ages.

family dinner

Invite help.
Bee’s just hit the age where she’s actually helpful and not pretend-helpful in the kitchen (you know what I’m saying, yes?), and I’ve found it essential to consider dinner prep as part of the entire experience so I’m not tempted to rush the process. There are plenty of ways for small hands to help, from fetching cinnamon from the pantry to handing you the spatula, a dish towel. (Of note: I’ve found that if Bee plays a role in the cooking, she’s far more likely to try even the most exotic of dishes!) To keep her hands busy, I’ll sometimes hand her leftover ingredients (scallion roots, thyme stems, avocado pits) and a pan so she can craft her own concoctions while mine are in the works. Surprisingly, her honey-cayenne carrots from last week were out of this world.

A simple way to include younger kids in meal prep: Keep everyday dishes in a low cabinet or drawer. Scout loves to “set the table” by piling plates, bowls and cups onto the dining room bench. Or, teach them to unload the dishwasher with you; utensils are a perfect starter chore.

DURING

Set the tone.
Want to make any meal feel special? Consider the environment. Opt for a soft, kid-friendly playlist in the background (jazz or classical are lovely, and while another tone entirely, I’ve never had a bad word to say about a good old Raffi serenade). Dim the lights, lower the blinds, abandon the distractions. Experiment with a new tablescape, if that’s your thing. However achieved, allow yourself and your family a soft(ish) spot to land after a crazed day in the world.

A simple, kid-friendly way to decorate your table: Ditch the so-tempting-for-little-fingers-to-pull tablecloth and opt for a bare surface with a one-row garland (I love eucalpytus or a similar understated greenery), or a simple table runner. Add a few flameless LED candles for a fire-free flicker to mesmerize your kids and warm their hearts.

family dinner

Help yourself.
I like the idea of encouraging kids to trust their instincts toward food quantities, rather than the typical “lick your plate clean” mantra of my own generation. I’ve found it helpful to present dinner family style where kids can practice serving themselves accordingly, taking only what they’ll truly eat so that little is wasted.

A simple way to feed young, picky eaters: My friend serves her kids from clean paint palettes, offering a simple food in the center (i.e. cut-up turkey or chicken, whole wheat pasta) and adding various “dips” in a few of the surrounding circles (blended avocado, ketchup, mustard, pureed carrots, etc). They love choosing their favorite colors for dipping, and they feel a sense of autonomy and independence around mealtime. I’ve seen it work dozens of times!

Invite lingering.
Dinnertime is for connection, so let the conversation roll! Whether it’s a jar of kid-friendly table topics (What superpower would you most like to have? What’s your favorite thing about the person on your right?) or a simple recap of the day’s events, allow the nourishment of food to extend far best your bellies. If your kids are still super young or aren’t particularly chatty, try DIY coloring sheets. Bring a few white card stock pages and a Sharpie to the table for a parent to draw a favorite scene from the kids’ day, whether the slide on the playground or an afternoon ice cream cone. Then, the kids get to color it in while the grown-ups finish their conversation.

A simple way to keep young ones occupied for just a bit longer: When the food has been picked over, consider offering small, individual bowls with a special “dessert”, like roasted nuts, fresh raspberries or candied pecans – something nutritious and savory that can’t be gobbled in three seconds flat. If your kids are anything like mine, they’ll sit still for snacks any day of the week.

family dinner

AFTER

Clean up time.
After the last bite is finished and the littles are antsy, try this simple no-fail rhythm: Kitchen vs. bathroom (cook’s choice). In other words, she who tackles the washing of the dishes does not also tackle the washing of small children. I love cleaning up in a quiet kitchen with a glass of wine, scrubbing and sudsing while witnessing squeals and squeaks from the bubble bath down the hall. And it’s always a treat to shampoo those tiny heads and wrestle quick bodies into footed pajamas knowing a clean kitchen awaits the bedtime rigmarole.

A simple way to ease the clean-up process: Opt for lightweight, melamine dishes so kids can clear the table without risking shattered china or chipped boneware when the plates (inevitably) get dropped en route to the sink.

 

Tell me, what are your go-to family dinner tips? Any ways you make the everyday a bit more special? I’d love to hear, and happy dining!

 

These tips were written for Walmart.com, now offering free and speedy 2-day shipping. Happy dining!

  • Be sure that you keep your family dinner tradition. It is a dying tradition these days. As your children get older, it will get harder. Less dinners but they will still have great meaning when they happen. It gets easier when they help with prep but they will want to run from the clean up. That’s just the way it is. Our children are adults now but they love to come back home for a family dinner when they can.

  • As I see your beautiful photos of your daughter helping with dinner prep, it reminded me of my own daughter who loved to help in the kitchen. She is now 25 and recently married. For her wedding shower, I created a book of family recipes. These included favorites from our table, as well as a few favorite that both grandmothers prepared often for her. I scattered photos of her helping in the kitchen at age 2, making cookies at 8, pies she made for Thanksgiving, cakes for our birthdays, etc. I also included photos of dinners we shared with her friends at college, and a few stories and quips. This gift is cherished by her. Those years go by just about as quickly as it took you to read this comment.

    I just thought you and others may want to tuck some of those photos away in a special file to use in the future. Thank you for your beautiful posts and photos!

    • I love hearing this, Ann – what a beautiful, memorable gift. Your daughter’s so blessed to have you!

  • Erin – your words take me to the spa. You slow down my reading and my pulse by drawing me into your tale. It is no wonder companies choose your words for sponsored posts – I am learning a lot from you as a writer.

    This season of challenging dinner prep with Littles being pretend-helpful (love that phrase) inspired me to write a collection of tips for any Mom who is in this stage. A simple Mom’s Guide to Surviving Loopy Hour (our affectionate term for this recurring stressful time). Complete with pep-talk and calming words like “If it all falls apart, make toast, snuggle on the couch and try again tomorrow.”

    You are tackling very real challenges in beautiful, calming ways. Thank you.

    • Such a kind comment – thank you, Karen! And ha, I love the term “loopy hour” – amen!!!! Biggest hugs your way. :)

  • This is so helpful! My dream is for my family is to have family dinners together every night, but it’s proven to be sort of tricky with an 8 month old! Sometimes, after working late, we don’t start making dinner until 6:30, and we try really hard to stick to my daughter’s 7 pm bedtime (she started sleeping through the night at 6 months and I’m so scared to disrupt the routine with keeping her up past bedtime for dinner with myself and her daddy lol) I look forward to when I can implement these tips when she’s a little older! Love your tips and tricks posts, they are always so helpful!

    • Oh goodness yes to the 8 month old dinner chaos! Plenty of time for family dinner in her bright, bright future! :)

  • Due to a variety of schedules during the week I gave up family dinner a while back, but I will find a way to make it happen as Forrest gets older. I do declare Family Dinner night occasionally on the weekend when I know we’re all hungry at the same time and I have the right meal put together – it’s so nice to sit together, share our days, and talk about nothing and everything.

    • Yes! I hear ya, sister! Just now getting into the swing of it and we’re admittedly hit or miss. Love when it works, love when it doesn’t. ;)

  • Oh, the family dinner! It’s my favorite time of the day. What helps me is I plan for the next meal while cooking the current meal. So while making breakfast I am putting on the stock for lunch. That makes a nice soup so easy! When it’s lunch time I just grab some veggies, stock is ready to go, 20 min boiling, blend and yum! And then while I am making the soup I am marinating the meat for dinner. I find it saves so much time. For the days out, nothing beats a slow cooker, and dinner is waiting for you when you get home.

    And Raffi (who lives on my island!) is our go to. All I need to get the little one to sit and eat is music that speaks to him. It’s amazing how much children’s music will make our dinner last!

  • I have a two-year-old and a four-year-old and I used to feel so much pressure about dinnertime. I noticed that they’d eat anything at 4, but by dinner time it’s a fight. So I’ve started feeding them something good at 4 and then making something for my husband and me for actual dinner. Sometimes they’ll try it, sometimes they just eat some fruit, but it’s so much less stressful. Also, I am able to make a meal where I’m not worried about it being kid friendly—my kids refuse salads, but my husbands and I love them. It might seem like more work, but it really isn’t, and I actually end up enjoying dinner more. I know some people might think it’s dumb or that I’m catering to my kids too much, but right now I’m focused on dinner being an enjoyable time. They eat really well the rest of the day and I just don’t have it in me to fight at nighttime. It’s taken a lot of the stress off of dinner time in our house and helped us to enjoy one another more so it’s a win in my book!

    • I love this idea — it’s so important to do what works for you. A girlfriend of mine always says, “Get on the train that’s movin!” So wise of you to buck the pressure and establish a nontraditional family rhythm to keep everyone fed and engaged and loved. Well done, mama!

  • One thing that has been helping our family so much is Prep Dish (Prep Dish.com). I get a weekly email with a menu plan, shopping list and the instructions to prepare all the meals for the week in about 1-2 hours. So I make time on Sundays usually to prep our meals for the week and then on the busy weeknights I don’t have to think, just throw the meal in the oven and dinner is on the table in no time at all. You can choose from gluten free or paleo meal plans and the group FB page is a great resource for when you are unsure about something. I have two very picky eaters and so far the meals have all been adaptable to what they’ll eat. Without the stress of deciding what’s for dinner and then going crazy when you need to have dinner on the table ASAP and you feel like you are being pulled in 10 different directions I find that by the time we sit down we can actually have a conversation about our days and I’m not feeling like a crazy person.

  • Thank you so much! Have you considered writing a book on parenting? I always really enjoy your posts on the subject. PS also really enjoy(ed) your first book 🙂

    • Oh thank you, Sindy —- I don’t know that I could hack a parenting book. So much still to learn!!! But it’s something I’m incredibly intentional about, so chances are I’ll keep processing in this space along the way! :) Biggest hugs to you!

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