Getting dinner on the table day in and day out can be exhausting, but it’s worth it. Check out these benefits to sitting down as a family and learn 5 easy ways to connect even more with your child in the process!
I have a confession to make, lately I’ve been dreading cooking dinner for my family. Most days, I’m highly focused on working up until my older two kids walk in the door from school at 3:45. Of course, I’m excited to see them. I want to hear about their day, unpack their book bags, and pull up a chair to relax.
Once that happens, I can’t seem to get out of that relaxation mode, I want more of it instead of popping up to start dinner.
If I’m being honest with myself, there’s somethings I need to change because dinner is incredibly important – especially as my kids get older.
And, despite my recent rub against the routine of preparing dinner, my kids have been showing me how this time that we all come together at the end of a busy day is far more important that I even once realized. They’re teaching me that this is a time that we can do more than simply gather around the table together, we can also grow closer together.
I have a feeling that when we look back on this time of our life, the time we shared around our dining room table every night will be some of our most fond memories.
Why Having a Family Dinner REALLY Matters
You’ve probably heard that having a family dinner nightly is important, but why?
More than ever, we’re juggling a million different things and are bombarded with constant distractions. We only have room for a few priorities in our life and let’s get real here, a lot of families aren’t eating dinner together because of it.
As a culture, we’ve lost our way from the traditional family dinner, and I’m not pointing any fingers because I totally understand how hard it is. I’m with you in this. But, I believe that if we understand why family dinner is worth the effort, then we’ll make it a top priority. Here are some of the biggest reasons:
- Picky Eating Power – Having a picky eater can derail family dinner times in a heartbeat because it’s often filled with stress and desperation. We jump to all sorts of tactics just to get our kid eating, but it turns out that one of the most important steps you can take to help your picky eater is to share meals together.
Before you can work on advanced picky eating strategies, you’ve got to get them sitting at the table, and when you eat with them, you can start helping them learn to eat new foods!
- Building Deep Bonds – As I already alluded to, dinner is a time to connect with our kids, if we leverage it that way. You can learn more about the people they’re growing into and the bond that’s deepened will allow them to trust and be open with you in the future.
- Increasing Social Skills – Teachers all over the country are citing decreased communication skills in students by high school because of the increase in personal phones and screen time. Kids aren’t having difficult conversations or even as many fun ones because so much of their communication is through text or passive viewing of a video. Our kids desperately need this conversational time with us at dinner.
- More Successful in School – As if that isn’t enough, studies actually show that kids who regularly eat dinner as a family perform better academically and, in some cases, may have higher IQ’s!
But, Family Dinners Can Be Hard
While that all sounds amazing, I know all too well the reality of kids not being able to sit still long enough to eat, or that rely on the distraction of a tablet to eat any food at all. There are all sorts of challenges that extreme picky eaters, kids with sensory needs, and the typical toddler bring to the dinner table.
Pile that on top of a mom that’s exhausted or parents that are working all day and just the thought of a family dinner can make you anxious.
If you need some more help, I’ve got you covered in:
- How to Have Positive Meals With Your Kid
- How to Keep Your Kid Seated for Meals
- How Working Moms Can Get Dinner on the Table
Because, it doesn’t matter so much what you serve for dinner. It’s far more important to gather together around take out or a frozen meal, than to aim for a meal that feels overwhelming and is made from scratch.
5 Ways to Connect With Your Kids and Have Fun Doing It!
Asking about your child’s day at dinner is great, but raise your hand if you’ve ever gotten the simple response: “good”. If I ask that question, 90% of the time, that’s the response. Below, you’ll find 5 different ways that my family uses to spend more connected time together at dinner.
But, promise me you won’t be deceived into thinking that we do this every night, we don’t.
If family meals are already part of your routine, then you can take these ideas and try them tonight!
If your family doesn’t usually eat together, then using one of the ideas could help begin this new routine because they’re all fun. Nothing you see below has to be done a certain way, and nothing should be forced. If a child refuses to participate, allow them, letting them know they can join in at any time.
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1. “What are Your Top 3 _________”
A few months ago my 7 year old son came up with this game at meals, it’s one of the ways my kids are teaching me that dinner time can be even more meaningful than I had imagined. It’s simple. All you do is pose a question that starts with: “What are your top 3 favorite _________?” Everyone takes a turn answering what their top 3 “things” are.
My kids love to come up with all sorts of questions and jockey to be the next one asking. Here are some examples to get you going:
- What are your top 3 favorite foods?
- What are your top 3 favorite super heroes?
- What are your top 3 favorite places to go?
- What are your top 3 favorite restaurants?
- What are your top 3 favorite movies?
- What are your top 3 favorite colors?
- What are your top 3 favorite desserts?
- What are your top 3 favorite holidays?
The list can go on and one. Your kids will likely come up with some silly questions. My 3 year old was able to play this with us, younger kids may struggle to grasp the concept though.
Another take on this game is to ask the question: “Would you rather ______ (ex: be a doctor) or _______(ex: or a dentist)?”
2. Name One Thing You’re Thankful For
I’ve been reading this powerful book by Brene Brown, Dare to Lead. On a side note, I highly recommend it if you want to show up as a leader in any aspect of your life (i.e.: work, church, marriage). It’s so freakin’ good! In the book, Brene shared how she and her family all say one thing they’re thankful for that day during dinner.
Sounds sweet, right? But, what really got me was when she said that practice had given her a deeper view into their soul that she wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Of course, after reading that I had to try it. I thought my kids might be too young, even though they often name things they’re thankful for in bedtime prayers. I was wrong, my kids dove right in when I asked them in a casual way at dinner one night, “Let’s all name one thing we’re thankful for today.”
The “today” part of that proposition is key, it forces us all to be mindful of the gifts in front of us at that very moment. You can’t help but feel more connected, not to mention grounded, after that!
3. Have a Food Lab
These next two ideas can be used as advanced strategies to help extreme picky eaters learn to eat new foods. Playing food lab is geared for kids that are 6 and over.
Grab a notepad of paper and bring it to dinner with you. Have a variety of foods available, but no more than 5, we don’t want to overwhelm them. Make sure at least one of them is a food your child normally eats. Tell your child you thought it would be fun to have a “food lab” and do some science experiments on the food your eating.
If you have a picky eater, you’ll want to proceed with caution, if they feel pressured at all, they will not cooperate.
Start off with a small “experiment”. This could be as simple as, “What colors do you see on your plate?’ Then record everyone’s response on a simple graph. You can then move up to harder experiments, never forcing your child. Some other ideas are:
- Is the food hard, soft, or squishy?
- How heavy is it?
- Does it smell sweet, sour, spicy?
- What flavor does it have?
- How many times do you need to chew it before swallowing?
- Does ketchup/BBQ/ranch dressing change the taste?
With either of these games, it’s critical to not label foods as good or bad. Avoid talking about likes and dislikes as well. The point is to simply learn about and explore the food. I’ve been surprised at how everybody jumps in to play this game and it turns into a family activity. The kids have loved collecting data about their food!
4. Play with your food
This game is best for the youngest of kids and even 1 year olds can participate. And, I know the automatic reaction is to think playing with food is teaching bad manners to kids, but for kids that are picky, it can change everything. Because, if a child won’t even look at a food, they aren’t going to stick it in their mouth.
First, you’ll want to notice what your child is already doing with the food? If they’re eating it already, then your play can be free of restrictions. But, if they won’t look at it or touch it, then that’s where you want to start. But, before you do, the thing you must remember is that you play with your own food and wait for them to imitate. A little bit of encouragement is okay, if necessary, but avoid pressuring them.
To get started with play, you might play peek-a-boo with the napkin and the food, drive it around the rim of the plate on a fork, or pretend it’s a dragon stomping up your arm into your mouth! I could go on and on about playing with food, if you’re using it for a picky eater, head to the detailed post: Getting Your Child to Explore New Foods.
This strategy made the list because inside my picky eating program, Mealtime Works, my students have told me over and over again that they’ve been surprised at how this play deepens their relationship with their child. While that wasn’t my first intention, it certainly makes sense. Kids that are picky eaters are struggling and need help, this play gives them that help in a fun way!
5. Game night
This last way to connect with your child is definitely geared more towards the 6 and older crowd, although my 4 year old kept up with us no problem the other night when we played Mario Kart Monopoly with our big taco night dinner. This idea is definitely a once-in-a-while kind of thing.
If you’ve been around here long, you know I don’t like distracting kids while they’re eating, and as long as that’s not the intention here, I think having a fun game/dinner night every so often is something kids will treasure. Choose your game wisely. Go fish and other card games that require you to hold a bunch of cards probably aren’t the best game!
Now that you’ve got some ideas, feel free to make them your own. You make the rules. The goal is to connect with your child.
I want to hear from you! What’s your biggest challenge with dinner time in your home or if you’re doing something that’s working, don’t keep it to yourself, share it with us pleeeeease, we’ll all be the better for it. I’ll be looking in the comments below.
Would this Free Printable Help?
If you want to get a mealtime routine down, so that your child grows up to have a healthy relationship with food, then I’ve got the perfect freebie for you! You can get 9 Ways to Improve Your Kid’s Eating and I’ll send it right to your inbox!
Click here to get the free printable!
More on Connecting with Your Child
Stop Mealtime Tantrums and Enjoy Your Dinner
Sensory Tricks to Help Your Kid Fall Asleep Fast!
Are You Taking Picky Eating Personally? This is Why You Shouldn’t
What is a Sensory Diet: Does My Child Need One?
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.
How can I get my 8 year old son to
Eat bigger bites and faster?
Meals with him take a long time.
How can I get him to sit down
And eat at his grandma’s house?
He doesn’t like to eat in front
Hey Paige, Thanks for reaching out! I’d have a conversation with him about what may help him at mealtimes. How things are feeling in his mouth, his difficulties with eating in front of other people to see what it’s like from his perspective to try to come up with some solutions together as a starting point. Also, we do have a free workshop that can be helpful for setting up positive mealtimes that may be helpful. You can save your seat here
My 6 year old son has sensory
And texture issues. He doesn’t
Chew or swallow any food.
I saw an email awhile back
About how you were able to
Get a child to eat chicken.
Can you tell me that again?
Or send it to my email?
How could I get him to
Try mashed potatoes or
How can I make this fun?
I feel that I’m not any fun
Because I just want him to
Oh Paige YOU are not alone, when you’re dealing with picky eating it can take over the meal. I’d highly recommend my free picky eating workshop, it’s how to get control of over the meals again. You can get a spot here.
As for the chicken, you can read this post about eating meat tips!
I have carried on a family tradition from my childhood, we called it “Family Night.”
It was often on a Sunday evening (after we had our main meal early in the day). Each family member submitted their choice of a game/activity on a slip of paper to be drawn from a hat which determined the event of the evening (my family growing up and my current household each had only 4 members, so unless grandparents were visiting, the odds were 1:4 of your choice being drawn). Part of the fun was in the variety of games/activities we played, and which varied based on the age of the children at the time: board games, card games, playing “school” and even playing “shoe store.”
Family Night also included a snack-meal of homemade popcorn, cheese slices or cubes, apple and orange wedges, and carrot sticks.
Sometimes this was served as an indoor “picnic” where furniture was moved away from the center of the room and a blanket was put down on the floor for us to gather round picnic style. On a couple of occasions, we even lined up our kitchen chairs 2×2 and pretended we were traveling int he car to the “picnic” site (admiring the “scenes” along the way, dramatically “turning” on a curvy road, then piling out of the “car” upon “arrival”).
These made for some wonderful and funny memories! What fun it was to relive the experience with my own children and create new memories. Even recently, while one of mine was home from college, he requested we have “Family Night.” The games are more mature, but the snack-meal is still preferred and the fun/laughter are priceless!
Oh Kristen, thank you so much for taking the time to share that. I’m totally doing it with my kids and it’s such a fun way to be present with our kids and have fun with food! This is such a wonderful idea!