Is dinner time at your house often chaotic and busy? Is it difficult to get a healthy meal together fast and keep your kids entertained? I am a parent with 3 young children, a busy household, work and extracurricular activities, and I know it can be a challenge to get dinner on the table, make it healthy, keep my kids occupied and keep myself sane through dinner preparation, dinner-time and cleaning up. To help our family get through dinner time we use the strategies I will list below. They definitely help our family.
I have 10 dinner-time or meal time strategies that can help your family make it through mealtime with less tantrums, stress and a lot more fun.
The first 5 strategies can be used everyday to help get through dinner time. The last 5 may be ideas you can add once or twice a week to make mealtime more fun, get your kids excited about a special night or for a special evening. Some of the ideas may not be new to you or you may not be using them regularly, but I find having a routine, even at dinner time, does help keep my kids calm and engaged at dinner time.
- 1. Involve your kids in Dinner Preparation 2. Let your kids Help Plan the Meal or Pick a Side. 3. Give each child a Small Job to do Before and After Dinner 4. Play a Game during Dinner 5. Opposite Day or Reverse Day 6. Shapes and Colors Meal 7. Give them a New Printable Activity before Dinner 8. King or Queen for a Meal 9. Themed Meals 10. 1 Dish Wonders and No Utensils
Dunk and Dip Fun Let them Play with their Food
1. Involve your kids in Dinner Preparation-
When you are getting dinner together, regardless of how involved or even if using a mostly prepared meal, you can let your child help you in the kitchen. Young kids love to feel important and to be given special jobs. When you involve them in the food preparation, they will be proud of their effort and be more likely to try a food, or eat the food, because they helped to make the meal or dish.
Let your child toss the salad, or sprinkle cheese or a topping on the dish, or let them stir, or spread the condiment on pita, bread or a side. Maybe they could put the veggies or dip in a cute kid-friendly cup. Let them help you and they will be engaged.
2. Let your kids Help Plan the Meal or Pick a Side-
When your child gets to have a certain night to pick the meal (or a part of the meal) they are more likely to be excited about dinner and eat their food. It can be especially helpful to allow your child to pick a vegetable and/or the fruit dish. Give them a choice from the selection you currently have - ask them if they would like to have grapes, a banana or apple slices with dinner. By involving them in the meal choices, they are learning about picking a healthy option, making a decision, and they will be more interested in sitting down to enjoy their big kid choice.
3. Give each child a Small Job to do Before and After Dinner It is important to give your child small jobs in your home, even when they are 2 or 3 years old. Kids want to be helpful at a young age and it teaches them responsibility, teamwork and pride in accomplishing a task. Dinner time is no exception. Pick a few simple things young kids can do easily and let your child pick which task they want to be responsible for. Young children can put napkins around the table, or plates or silverware if they are a little older. Or they can bring cups to the table or the salt and pepper shakers. It is also important for them to learn to help with clean up. Give them a simple task after dinner each evening. It could be to clear cups and put them in the sink or dishwasher, with supervision, or pick up the napkins or some other task. Have a fun or family incentive so, after dinner and clean up is complete, everyone knows you will go play a game with them, do a puzzle, read a book or just play. Kids love spending time with their parents, so use after dinner as a time to spend quality time with your kids.
4. Play a Game during Dinner
At first it might seem that the dinner table is the absolute worst place to play during dinner. But with kids the goal is to get through dinner without a melt-down, everyone eating some of their food and to spend time together as a family. There is a place for conversational, formal-type dinners, but I do not think that helps to keep your kids, especially young ones, engaged at dinner time. So leave the formalities to your grown up dinner parties and have a little fun with your kids. You will all enjoy dinner time a little more if everyone relaxes a bit. Of course, there is always a place for manners and teaching at every meal, but a little fun makes meals more enjoyable.
I have listed a few ideas for simple games you can play while sitting at the dinner table. First let me go over the rules:
- Everyone is sitting in their chair. Everyone has to be eating some of their food throughout the game, unless done. Everyone has to be respectful of others' turns. Any other table rules you see fit in order to play
- Name Something that Is: Color, Shape, Food grown in ground, on a tree, or any other group or things. I Spy: Play the usual I spy game but everyone has to be able to see it from their seats. What Is It?- Someone says 2 to 3 clues and each person takes a turn guessing what it is (ex. do animals or foods that are easy for kids to guess). Spin a Tale- A parent starts a story about something the kids like and everyone can add to the story or give ideas to help the storyteller finish the story. So you could tell a story about a Princess or Pirate, a Knight or a funny camping trip or anything you can think of.
5. Opposite Day or Reverse Day-
Why not have breakfast at dinner-time? Kids love to do something different and special. So why not make them a favorite meal or make breakfast at the end of the day. Serve whole wheat pancakes, eggs and fresh fruit or something your family likes that you usually eat in the morning or at lunchtime. Often breakfast or lunch foods are easy to make, so on a night when you are in a hurry this is an easy and fun option. You can let your kids help stir the batter or sprinkle veggies or cheese on the eggs.
6. Shapes and Colors Meal
Have your kids help you plan a meal with foods that are all the same color or the same shapes. It is a fun way to try new foods when they are combined with favorites (ex. serve grapes with a new green veggie or strawberries with red pepper slices). And a great way to talk about shapes, colors, similarities and differences. You can also let you child help you pick some of the dinner choices (example- should we have green grapes or kiwi or red apple slices or strawberries).
7. Give Your Kids a New Printable Activity before Dinner
One way to keep your kids busy right before dinner and to help them wind down is to give them an activity at the table that will only take a short time to finish. I recommend you pick a new activity each meal so your child will be more interested in doing the activity. You can use a coloring page you already have or placemats kids can color on, or go online and print free kids placements or activities and coloring pages for your kids to use.
You can print several at a time when you are on the computer so that you have enough to get you through dinners for a week or two. You can even show your child some of the options online so you know they will love to color it or do the activity quietly. Many websites have free coloring or printable activities. At ZiggityZoom.com we do as well.
To see our printables that would be perfect for dinnertime click a link below: For coloring pages, click here. For Printable Placemats and other items, click here.
8. King or Queen for a Meal or Throw a Royal Feast
Let your child wear a special hat or crown and let them pick the meal for the Royal Feast. Or have everyone in the family be royalty for dinner. Give them a few healthy choices to pick from so it is something you have the ingredients to make. Kids love to feel special, so use this type of dinner feast for when you want to reward your child or just have a grand time with make believe. You can also throw in a couple of food items and say they are what Kings and Queens eat or once ate.
9. Themed Dinners
Kids love to make things up and to be a part of something fun. So why not make dinner time a fun event. Think of the type of food you want to make and create a theme around it that your kids will love. Or think of items you have around the house that you can incorporate and plan a meal that corresponds with those items. Some ideas are:
- A Fiesta - a Mexican Feast - tie it to favorite foods or a character, like Dora or Diego Camping Out- grill out or just have foods from a camping trip- hot dogs, beans, etc (or veggie hot dogs). Beach Bash- have seafood (fish, crab meat, scallops, or other beachy items) Picnic in the Backyard- make an easy pasta salad, cut up fruit and a few other easy items and pack it up and take it out back or to the park Favorite Character's Meal- does your child love Princesses, or Dora or another character? Make a meal that speaks to that idea and put some toys around the table and kitchen to liven it up. It could be colors, shapes, foods or the place the foods are from that ties back to the character.
The idea is to spend a few extra minutes making the meal special with some items they love and bringing the idea together so your kids will be excited to eat their food and interact with dinner-time.
10. 1 Dish Wonders and No Utensils
What child does not love to use their hands when eating? So make an easy, healthy version of your family's favorites that are a special treat to eat and do not require their utensils. Make a mexican dish that has rice, beans, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and serve with whole grain chips or make nachos (use healthy chips, low-fat cheese, put some beans and chicken and veggies on top, or any other easy fun dish that they can use chips or whole wheat pita wedges with and you have instant fun!!! Kids love dipping and it is a treat to get all of your food in 1 dish, instead of a separate fruit, veggie, protein for a change.
Dunk and Dip Fun
Make a quick meal that can be eaten with a fun food- multigrain baked chips or whole wheat pita wedges and serve with the food. Kids love to dip their food. You can also serve fresh cut fruit and veggies with a healthy low-fat dip or two for your kids to try.
Let them Play with their Food.
Kids love to build and make things. So why not give them a plate with their fruit or veggies that looks like an animal, plane, train, mermaid, or other favorite thing? You can either place the fruit or vegetables to make it look like something or serve a plate full of different size and color fruits or veggies and let your child make something out of the food. You might want to show they an example or picture so they understand the idea. Also, only give them enough for their portion or else they might not eat all of the food they were touching.