Establishing a family dinner routine with a toddler can be pretty dang tough. And that’s mostly because eating the evening meal with your kid is not really like having dinner. It’s more like spending a couple hours on the set of that Nickelodeon game show Double Dare.
Yes, you can totally agree with Marc Summers that getting slimed stinks. However, science says that having regular in-home dinners provide incredible benefits to your family. So here are some tips to get the best out of your family dinner routine.
Plan It Out
Some of the benefits, like higher grades, appear to pop up when your kid is eating 5 family dinners a week. That said, if hitting the table nightly feels daunting, you should just aim for at least 3 and go from there. In fact, go ahead and put them on your calendar. Along with your scheduled sexual encounters. Look how organized you are.
You can even bring the rest of the family in for some meal planning. Your toddler might be a bit more invested if you give them some control over the food choice. Of course, “choice” in this instance is limited to a couple healthy things you know they dig. You’re obviously not going to serve them marshmallows for dinner. Unless it’s Thanksgiving and you’re laying down the candied yams. In which case, dinner marshmallows for all!
Cook It Up
A working kitchen is a lively place. There’s tons of energy (and a buttload of f-bombs if you’re cooking for Gordon Ramsay). Getting the whole family in on the prep action can be a huge bonding experience.
The key to having your toddler join is to give them cooking tasks that make sense. Consider setting aside some extra veggies that can be washed (or played with, TBH). Get them a whisk and a bowl and some “ingredients” to mix together. Or, they can actually be helpful by measuring, combining, or prepping herbs if you have the patience.
Not only is this a social time, it will help your kid build skills, dexterity and independence through mimicry. It also helps them develop their vocabulary and start working on simple instructions.
3 More Ways They Can Help
Setting The Table: For smaller kids, it might be one fork and napkin at a time. And don’t expect it to look pretty.
Serving: Allowing your kid to pass the bread around is fine. You can even coach them on how to dole out the potatoes. Again, you gotta be cool with a little slop.
Cleaning Up: If your toddler is old enough to walk, they are old enough to pick up the stuff they dropped on the floor and carry their plate to the dishwasher. So are your BTW.
At The Table
The dining room table is the place for you to wage your battle of manners. It honestly is never too early to start. You’ll be doing this mainly by modeling your own incredible manners. Don’t want your kid to burp at the table? Don’t burp at the table. Want your kid not to be grabby with the condiments? Asked them to be passed. That said, the word Poupon will never not be funny.
You will need to keep in mind that your kid is just getting the dexterity they need to use utensils. So take a breath. The same goes for what they eat, how much they eat, and their general behavior. There will be many dinners to learn from.
Don’t Be Afraid Of Conversation
Your kid might not be crazy verbal, but they understand and are listening to way more than you probably think they are. So go ahead and bring them into the dinner conversation. This will go even further in helping them learn vocabulary and even emotional understanding.
One fun conversation is to ask each member of the family what their favorite thing about the day was. Follow it up with what the least favorite thing was. The more this becomes habit, the better you’ll know your kid when the get to the age when “idunno” seems like a fine response for everything.
Some Dinner Ground Rules
Jenny Rosenstrach has built a mini-empire out of documenting her transition from cooking novice to a mother of 3 who turned the dinner table into the center of her family universe. Her 10 “Rules Of Dinner” are pretty awesome. Here a couple you might want to establish early:
Four On The Floor: We’re talking chair legs here. Not chicken nuggets.
No Distractions: Everyone turns the electronics off. That includes lonely televisions in far away rooms broadcasting to no-one.
Try A Bite Of Everything: Even if it’s a teensy weensy “no thank you” bite.
Inside Voices: Because, obviously.
Keep It Safe: No fighting, bickering, accusations, blaming, etc.
It will take awhile to get the routine in place. But the younger your kid is when you start, the more cherished the tradition will become as they grow up. And considering research points to family dinner being magical enough to keep your kid off drugs? It’s well worth a shot.