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3 Ways to make family dinners more pleasant with small kids


Leszek Glasner

Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 04/20/24

If you’re in the same stage of life as I am, with lots of wiggly young kids, here are a few things you can try to make family dinners more pleasant.

We know that having family dinner together is important for our kids, but it’s not exactly the easiest thing to pull off! 

I don’t know about you, but squirrelly and raucous behavior are pretty typical from the young hooligans in my house. Yet my husband and I keep soldiering on with family dinner, because we know it’s so important:

There have been more than 20 years of dozens of studies that document that family dinners are great for the body, the physical health, the brains and academic performance, and the spirit or the mental health. In terms of nutrition, cardiovascular health is better in teens, there’s lower fat and sugar and salt in home cooked meals even if you don’t try that hard, there’s more fruit, and fiber, and vegetables, and protein in home cooked meals, and lower calories. Kids who grow up having family dinners, when they’re on their own tend to eat more healthily and to have lower rates of obesity.

Then the mental health benefits are just incredible. Regular family dinners are associated with lower rates of depression, and anxiety, and substance abuse, and eating disorders, and tobacco use, and early teenage pregnancy, and higher rates of resilience and higher self esteem.

On top of that, I know my kids will grow out of their silly nonsense at the dinner table, but the habit of eating together will last. My husband and I believe we are building good habits now that will bear great fruit when our kids are older and ready to have important conversations at the dinner table.

Right now, though, family dinner is often a struggle! If you’re in the same stage of life as I am, with lots of wiggly young kids, here are a few things you can try to make family dinners more pleasant.

Set the scene together

Kids always care more about something when they are in charge of it or are invested somehow. What are some ways we can give our kids control over making family dinner nice?

Here are a few things I do to help my kids feel invested in family dinner and set the scene:

  • Ask them for dinner suggestions when I make the weekly meal plan. 
  • Ask them, “How can we make the table beautiful for family dinner?” They might want to add a bouquet of flowers from the yard, choose a tablecloth, or set the table with cloth napkins, and I usually run with it.
  • Light a candle on the table. (Candles are a kind of dinner-changing magic that seem to help kids calm down!)
  • Set aside dinner time as special by praying together as a family before eating.

Make a game out of polite behavior

I invented a game for my kids called “bouncing the conversation ball” to teach them how to engage in polite dinnertime conversation. The idea is really simple: The first person to take a turn asks someone else at the table a question that theother person would be interested in. Then that person “bounces the ball” by asking the same kind of question to someone else.

The idea is that they will learn to look at things from another person’s point of view and understand that conversation is as much about thoughtful listening as it is about sharing your own perspective. My kids love this game and it has led to many hilarious moments over the years as my little ones try hard to think of a question that would be interesting to an older family member!

Another game is to have each person go around the table sharing something they are grateful for that day, or ask each one to share their “high, low, and buffalo” (best part and worst part of their day, and something that surprised them). I also like to ask my kids what act of service they did for someone else that day. Some families light a candle as long as the kids are behaving politely. You get the idea!

Think outside the box

If you’re in a season when family dinners are just not happening, why not get creative? The goal is to spend time together talking and enjoying each other’s company, and it doesn’t have to happen at 6 pm sharp every weekday!

One of my friends works very late hours, so he and his wife have opted to have family breakfast together every day instead of family dinner. That’s been a great fit for them in this season with young kids.

Another friend likes to feed her baby and toddler early in the evening and put them to bed around 6 p.m. Then she and her husband and older children enjoy a more leisurely family dinner with just the more civilized members of their crew.

One of my favorite ways to shake up the family dinner routine is to move it outside and have a picnic or eat on the back patio when the weather is nice. Something about being outside makes it feel more fun! A picnic dinner might also be a good solution if you’re running around between sports practices and still want to eat together.

Keep fighting the good fight to make family meals happen, moms and dads! Even when our kids don’t seem to appreciate it, day by day we are weaving the fabric of love and connection that will enrich the rest of their lives. 

Catholic LifestyleChildrenFamilyParenting
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