In many ways, the pandemic has forced families to slow down to a pace that felt impossible a year ago. I can remember, last March, staring at the large wall calendar that hangs in my kitchen. One by one, we’d crossed out basketball practices, soccer games, playdates, and family get-togethers until all that was left was a written reminder to give our dog his monthly heartworm prevention medication. Suddenly, there was nothing to fill our evenings besides family dinners and board games.
For many families, these past several months have been an opportunity to reclaim the Family Dinner, a thing that previously may have been hard to fit in among all the gymnastics classes and Boy Scouts meetings. As a result, however, these past months may also have served as a reminder that while sitting down to eat together as a family is a good and worthy goal, that doesn’t mean it always goes smoothly. After hours of virtual learning (for them) and working (for you), and after yet another day full of sibling bickering and uncooperative technology, you might all arrive to the dinner table with a somewhat cranky disposition. The last thing you felt like doing was cooking a big meal, but now that you have, the last thing they feel like doing is eating whatever you made.
We’re still stuck in the same old pandemic, but it’s a new year, which can provide some motivation to shake things up. If you are finding dinnertime to be a frustratingly contentious time of day, now is the time to shift tactics. Here are some ideas for how to get out of your dinnertime rut.
Dinnertime doesn’t have to be at dinnertime
If ever we’ve had the flexibility to have dinner at, well, whatever time we want, it’s probably now. If everyone gathering at 6 p.m. like usual is working for you, then stick with it. However, if your little kids are traditionally melting into an emotional mess by 6 p.m., try moving the time up.
We’ve suggested in the past that you go ahead and feed your kids dinner at 3 p.m. if they’re famished after school. The line between “school” and “after school” has become rather blurry, but the point is that if their hunger hits earlier than the traditional dinner time, maybe it’s worth moving up. In fact, there’s no law that says the big family meal has to be the evening meal at all — depending on your schedule right now, maybe you can all gather for a family lunch instead.
If lunch becomes the bigger family meal, you can use your usual evening “cooking” time to prepare tomorrow’s lunch. Chop up vegetables for a stir fry, cook up a pot of spaghetti sauce, or put a casserole together and stick it in the refrigerator until tomorrow. Now, “dinner” can be a lighter meal of soups, sandwiches, or salads.
If gathering together as a family for a full meal isn’t working at all (maybe they need their bigger meal at lunchtime, but that doesn’t match up with your work schedule), try having a late-night “family snack.” You’re still spending time together around the table, which is the goal, but maybe you just share an assortment of sliced fruits and cheeses or hummus with wedges of pita bread.
Call it something else
If calling out, “It’s time for dinner!” causes instant groans from your little kids, maybe just…call it something else. The word “dinner” to them may imply big meals full of foods they don’t love, and sometimes it’s all about branding. So instead of serving up the usual cooked vegetables they turn their nose up at during dinner, invite them into the kitchen for a “vegetable happy hour” while you finish preparing the rest of the meal.
Set out an assortment of brightly coloured vegetables with a couple of dips and encourage them to try whatever looks good. A different presentation — and the ability to munch before dinner — might be enough to entice them to try things they wouldn’t ordinarily want to try during dinner.
Now that they’ve had their vegetable happy hour, it’s time for a “big snack.” They might not be interested in having a quesadilla for dinner, but would they like a quesadilla for a big snack? That might just sound fun.
Play a game while you eat
Sometimes it’s best to take the focus off the food entirely. If the dinnertime conversation always seems to come back to how disgusting broccoli is or how much meatloaf makes them want to gag, play a verbal game of some sort. This Little Talk conversation starter deck is a great place to begin, but you could also make up your own verbal games.
My family often plays an alphabet game where we pick a category, such as first names, foods, or animals, and then take turns naming a word from the category that starts with the next letter of the alphabet: A is for asparagus, B is for bread, C is for carrot cake, and so on. (These kinds of games are also good for road trips.) They may actually eat a little more if they’re not so hyper-focused on each bite.
Give them a little more control
What do kids ultimately want? Why, control, of course. They don’t want to constantly feel like life — and meals — are happening to them. No, they want an active participatory role in what they do and when they do it.
One of the basic pieces of advice parents receive for helping their kids to be more open to trying different foods is to take them with you to the grocery store to help pick out produce to prepare for meals, and then allow them to help you cook it. Or, as Chrissy Teigen suggests, you can create a laminated menu full of healthy meals you know they’ll eat — and let them choose their own dinner.
When all else fails, and your kids are crashing and burning at dinnertime once again? Try flipping a coin.