Turning the tables

Simple solutions to common dinner dilemmas

The term “family dinner” conjures up warm images of parents catching up on their kids’ lives, the give-and-take of lively conversation, good humour, delicious food and comforting memories.

Too bad it isn’t always like that.

At our house, we’ve had our share of lovely family feasts, but we’ve also had less delightful dinners — occasions when more than one child stomped away from the table mad. There have been discussions about what body part the lasagna most resembled, or what pâté is really made of. There have been dinners with two kinds of potatoes, chicken fingers three ways (fried, baked and from Loblaws) and once, spaghetti times four: plain, with cheese, with ground beef and with regular sauce. There are only five of us in the family!

The pluses? No one has broken a bone at dinner. No one (no adult, anyway) has eaten dinner under the table. And, despite the less-than-stellar meals, we’re all still talking to one another. It would seem that, hassles and hurdles aside, dinner with the family is worth working at. Read on for how to handle some common table troubles.

Getting everyone to eat together is a logistical nightmare!

Be realistic. “Sometimes what we expect isn’t reasonable for the age of the child — for example, a two-year-old sitting still at the table for 45 minutes,” says Vancouver parent educator and Today’s Parent columnist Kathy Lynn. Instead, call little kids to the table only when their dinner is all ready to eat — food portioned out on the plate and meat cut up.

Synchronize with your child’s schedule. A young child — or even an older one — may not be able to dine fashionably late without having an earlier snack to stave off a hunger-induced meltdown.

Bring everything you can think of to the table before you sit down to eat. Jolene Thiessen of Oak Lake, Man., mom of Kate, 10, Ruth, six, and Mei, four, laughs: “I don’t think I’ve ever sat through an entire meal! Someone always needs ketchup or more milk or something.”

Between arriving home from work and school, and leaving again for soccer practice and piano, we can’t coordinate dinners together.

Time-shift. Depending on the timing and type of activities, Toronto professional organizer Karen Sencich suggests, “you may be able to postpone dinner until everyone is back home again. A snack before the practice might tide them over — no one wants to eat a heavy meal and run around at a sporting event. Then afterwards, enjoy a late meal together.”

Make dinner a priority. Lynn has some advice for overextended families: “If you can’t get together for dinner more than once or twice a week, take a look at the schedule. Maybe the kids can do one activity this semester and try something else next semester.”
I don’t have time to do up my shoes, let alone make a home-cooked dinner every night!

Go slow. “Often the most convenient and inexpensive way to put some nutrition on the table is using a slow cooker,” Sencich recommends. “Or a homemade microwaveable casserole or lasagna works well when there’s no time to cook — you have something hot and ready to go.”

Make a plan. Sheri Ordinario of Fort Erie, Ont., mom of Teo, 21 months, tries to hit the grocery store when husband Ray is home to look after Teo. She uses a weekly meal plan so she knows what to buy, and preps dinner while Teo naps, colours in his high chair nearby, watches television or plays with toys that come out only at “kitchen-duty time.”

Get everyone to help. Lynn is adamant that kids should help prepare dinner. “Start when they’re very young — when they’re not a lot of help but they want to do what you’re doing. A little one can rip up lettuce and swirl it around in a bowl of water.” The payoff? “That’s how you end up with a 10-year-old who can put a meal on the table,” says Lynn.

Make extra. “Cook twice as much turkey or chicken as you need and plan to use the extra in tomorrow’s dinner,” says Toronto home economist and cookbook author Mairlyn Smith.

Make use of good-quality convenience foods. Smith likes plain frozen veggies, bagged salads and store-bought salad dressings — as long as they’re made with canola or olive oil (like Newman’s Own and Renée’s). But she cautions parents to read the labels on convenience foods: “The problem with bought stuff is the high sodium and the wrong type of fat. We should be eating extra-virgin olive oil and canola oil — most prepared food isn’t made with those.”

Be unconventional. It’s ideal to include four food groups, but think beyond traditional dinner choices. Smith says, “We have this preconception that we have to have potatoes, rice or pasta and a meat for dinner or we’re not doing it right.” There are other ways to do it.

Use leftovers creatively. Think buffet, says Sencich. Portion out favourite leftovers, add salad or bread to round out the meal, and arrange it buffet-style so your kids can pick what they want. This makes serving leftovers almost bearable.

There are two picky eaters in my family and I don’t know how to manage their meals

Model healthy eating. “Show your child good habits from the beginning — by the time they hit five, most of their eating habits are already developed,” says Vancouver registered dietitian Ali J. Chernoff.

Don’t make a big deal about it. If your kid hates his food all mixed up or doesn’t like meat touching potatoes on his plate, be flexible. “I would serve the child a variety of foods in small amounts — all plain,” says Chernoff. “A kid may not like mixed dishes, but he may eat plain pasta with the tomato sauce on the side. Keep reintroducing the foods. And make sure you all sit down together so he sees the rest of the family eating their food.”

Involve kids in shopping and dinner prep. Children with strong preferences may like to eat fresh vegetables rather than frozen or canned. And go for foods with kid appeal — easy to chew, interesting, crisp or crunchy, fun to eat with fingers.

Have a gentle conversation. Casually ask your child why she’s not eating her food. If school-aged kids start to balk at certain foods, they may have heard comments at school — myths about the food being bad or fattening. Ask your child what’s up so you can debunk the story.

Don’t bribe with dessert. Talk about other topics so the focus isn’t entirely on food. Try not to press the issue.

Offer regular healthy snacks. That way, you know your child is getting enough good food throughout the day. “If she’s hungry an hour after dinner and wants her meal then — great. Have her sit down at the table and eat,” adds Chernoff.
Sometimes dinner turns into bickering or an insult-fest

Ask the tough questions. “When things get this bad,” Lynn says, “parents need to figure out the cause: Are they ignoring the kids? How are the kids’ manners? Do they know the expectations? Sit the kids down and talk about manners and expectations. Let them know that they have the choice to mind their table manners — or leave.” If the behaviour continues, offer that choice. Lynn adds, “There shouldn’t be a talk or lecture or reminders. Just a simple ‘I see you have chosen to leave the table.’”

Switch it up. Turning down the animosity might be as simple as arranging the seating so the participants aren’t next to each other. “They should be able to sit together unless they’re really young,” Lynn says. “But if changing seats makes a difference, go for it!”

Converse gently. “When you have conversation with your kids at the table,” says Lynn, “don’t turn it into an interrogation: What did you do at school today? How did you do on your test? Did you talk to your teachers? No wonder kids kick their siblings under the table!”

Include your whole brood. A lot of kids’ misbehaviour at the table is about getting attention. “If there are four people at the table, four people should be getting attention,” asserts Lynn. “The children will finish their meal early so I recommend that parents hold a lot of their conversation for afterward.”

Tell a silly story. Lynn suggests, “Say something like ‘You won’t believe what happened on the way to work — you should have seen the funny woman in the car next to me!’ The minute you tell a story, kids are going to say, ‘Do you know what happened to me?’ because they want to play along.”

Use the news as inspiration. Tell the kids what happens in a strike or how an election works. “Dinner conversation doesn’t always have to be about the minutiae of your day,” Lynn explains. “TV shows, movies, books, current affairs are all good conversation starters. Same as conversations you would have with anybody!”

Tempted to use the TV? Etiquette consultant Louise Fox (The Etiquette Lady) urges families to turn it off. “It tends to replace any conversation. The dinner table is one of the best places to develop conversation skills, find out what’s going on in your children’s lives and for them to find out about yours, and share your thoughts about the world. That should take precedence over any TV program.”
I’d like to teach my kids good table manners, but I don’t want to nag all the way through a meal

Take time to teach them. Your kids will learn how to behave at the table — from you, says Fox. If family dinners have become a rare occasion, let kids know how you expect them to behave — before you take them to a special dinner like a wedding reception. If the kids don’t know what to do, you may get trapped into saying “Don’t do this, don’t do that” at the table.

Keep it positive. Some evening when you have time to be relaxed, Fox suggests sitting down with the kids before the meal comes to the table. “Say something like ‘This is what we’re going to try tonight — I’m going to show you a few things. This is how we hold our cutlery, this is how we sit, this is how we keep our elbows so we don’t knock anyone out.’ Go through all those little steps. And when the meal comes, say, ‘OK, let’s try that.’”

Take heart! Fox finds that most kids really like to learn dining etiquette. When they know what to do, they feel more comfortable and in control of the situation.

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