7 Ways to Take Frustration Off the Menu: Prevent Mealtime Meltdowns

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Hispanic Family Sitting At Table Eating Meal Together

Every parent knows that meal time, especially dinner time, is one of the craziest times of day. The whole family is finally converging after the rest of the world has already taken a good portion of each family member’s sanity for the day. The house is buzzing with kids playing or doing homework. Mom, Dad, or both are getting home from work. Kids are hungry and letting you know it. Parents are hungry and grumpy as a result. Blood sugar is low and tensions are high.

Finally the meal is ready and you call the kids to the table. No one comes. You think to yourself, “I couldn’t get them out of the kitchen 5 minutes ago and now, where did they disappear to?” You call one more time and hear the stampede coming toward the kitchen table. The oldest is clawing his way to switch the blue cup with the red one in front of his brother’s table setting. A squabble ensues in the nightly clash of the cups. When the battle over the cups calms down you announce it’s time to pray and give thanks for the food, but the kids seem to think that this is an invitation to pick up and clang utensils against plates and talk to one another. Eventually things settle down, a prayer is said in haste and the actual meal begins. Each child fights for you to dish up their plate of food first. There’s a chorus of orders and demands. By the time people start eating, at least one of the kids insists that his food is too cold and they want to warm it in the microwave. In time, everyone is in their seat and eating. You are watching and demanding that they eat their veggies and at least 3 bites of whatever the main course is, while they complain about not liking what you fixed. At last, a hush falls over the table while the whole family chews simultaneously. You say, “How was school?” In reply, you get, “Fine.” You think to yourself, “I went through all of that for ‘fine’?”

Make it marvelous

It doesn’t have to be this way. Dinner can be a great time to connect and decompress. It just takes a little deliberate planning. I must confess that the scenario above is reminiscent of some of my own family’s experience at dinner time. We don’t always apply the principles and techniques below but I can attest that when we do, things are significantly better.

1. Plan meals ahead of time: I’ve found in my own experience and through talking with many other moms and dads that just deciding what to make for dinner can be one of the most frustrating and stressful decisions of the day. It can cause arguments in a marriage and at the very least, a whole lot of grumpiness. It can decrease the stress of the evening routine, and save you from wasted time and arguments if you simply create a weekly meal plan. Take 10 minutes each Sunday evening to write down a list of meals for the week and post them on the calendar. Check out these great sites for easy meals and plans for your family.

2. Manage Personal Overwhelm and stress BEFORE the meal begins: If you know that you are stressed out before the dinner prep and meal begins, take a breather. Before battling the task at hand, retreat to your room for a few minutes and try the Quick Calm Technique or take a few minutes to meditate, sing a song, pray for help or read some calming or inspirational quotes or devotionals. If you find yourself stressed to your max every day at this time, it may be time to take a look at your schedule and make a change. Find a way to relieve yourself of the overwhelm and meet your evening meal and activities with greater calm and peace. If you struggle with overwhelm and stress, I would love to help you find tools to increase your calm and TRU Parenting. Check out my TRU Coaching page to find out how you can get the calm you need and finally solve the parenting issues you’ve been struggling with.

3. Use paper: When my fifth child was born things were a little crazy. People brought gifts to the house for my wife and the baby. A good friend brought a gift that made things a little bit simpler for a few weeks. Paper plates. Who would have thought that something so simple could have made such a huge difference in the work load and stress of the household. We don’t use paper every night, but now at least one night a week we take a break from the dishes with this simple substitution of paper plates. To some this little tip may seem like no big deal, while for others it will feel like an attack on your very identity. It’s nice to sit down to a well set dinner table, but remember that the plates and utensils you use during dinner are not good measurement tools for your value as a mother or father. Give yourself a break and use paper.

4. Prepare plates before kids get to the table: If your kids are like mine they can get a little restless sitting at the table waiting to get their food. By changing one small routine at dinner time, you can avoid and prevent a lot of boredom driven bickering and fidgeting. Load up the children’s plates before calling them to the table for the meal. As they grow up and become more independent you may want to leave part of the meal for them to prepare on their own, but for the young kids, preparing their food ahead of time can make a huge difference in the tone of the meal.

5. Ask great questions: How many times have you asked, “How was your day?,” just to get a lackluster response of, “Fine.” Well, you knew it was fine, I mean, they’re still alive, right? You think couldn’t they give an answer other than “fine?” When we ask redundant, boring questions, our kids tend to respond with redundant, boring conversation. Give them a little jolt by adding some novelty. Change up the same old questions for something a little more specific and exciting that really invites them to express themselves and start conversation. Some great examples include…

  • What did you do today that you are most proud of?
  • What was something kind someone did for you today?
  • What is one thing you might change about your day if you could?
  • The website Six Sister Stuff has a great resource of 50 Family Dinner Conversation Starters. Each of these 50 conversation starters are excellent examples of powerful questions that encourage engagement and connection rather than just going through the motions of asking the same old questions.
  • Sometimes it can even be fun for you and the kids to come up with a list of questions together and post it near the dinner table. It might include things you would like to know about them or what they might be interested in knowing about you. Start at the top of the list and start loving and learning more about each other every meal that you share together.

6. Acknowledge and defer: Respond, don’t react. As parents we spend so much time focusing on not reacting negatively that we sometimes don’t respond at all. We often ignore a request, especially a request that has been repeated ONE MILLION TIMES. When kids ask questions or make demands at the table, especially when we are busy doing something else, acknowledge their request and let them know that they are welcome to do it themselves or wait until you are able to do it (after you are done serving others or finished with your own meal.) The problem with ignoring is that most young kids are pretty persistent and will continue to ask over and over if they are not acknowledged. We all know that their persistence just drives us to greater irritation and negative reactions The answer may indeed be no or that they may have to wait, but at least answer and let them know that from the start.

7. Offer a variety of veggies: I’m sure veggie problems have been around since the beginning of time. Able probably complained to Adam and Eve, “Do I have to eat the fruit of the ground? I know I have to till the fields, but do I have to eat my beans?” Lets face it, broccoli is not as tasty as ice cream or even bread for that matter, but it is much more nutritious, so we try to include some veggies in every meal. The trick to getting kids to eat their veggies is to offer them choices. Keep fresh finger food veggies around that can be added to the meal. If they would rather have carrots, celery or green peppers with dip instead of the steamed broccoli that you are serving give them that option. My own kids each have a veggie that they refuse to eat, and overtime their preferences change, but they will all eat some kind of fresh veggie if it is available.

Mealtime doesn’t have to be a dreaded time. In fact, research has shown that families who eat one meal a day together have fewer problems with “high risk” behaviors like drugs, promiscuity and crime. Research also found greater respect and stronger family relationships among those in this group. Food gives us a reason to come together and helps us bond. Mealtime provides a sense of family unity and offers excellent opportunities to teach values and skills in a non-threatening environment and a time to peacefully reconcile differences. The benefits of dinner time together are huge and we can get all of these benefits without the discomfort that often accompanies a lot of young families. Give each of the seven tips above a try and let us know in the comments what happens. What other tips would you add to help other parents and families make mealtime marvelous?

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