“I just want to have a happy, peaceful meal.” What parent hasn’t said this? There is a moment in the evolution of every young family that a peaceful and happy dinner seems impossible.

Check out Kristie’s house where Wednesday night dinner is more hectic than usual. In her home, the oldest child will only eat French fries with ketchup and there is no more ketchup. Her husband is helping in the kitchen and wants to enjoy the family meal and then get back to work for an evening meeting. For him and his evening priorities, the importance of ketchup is lost and more than a little annoying.

After some parental finger pointing regarding the improperly updated shopping list, the focus settles on the selective French-fries-but-only-with-ketchup eating child. The child, expert at expressing what he wants, starts to use “that tone of voice”. Adding to the mix, the youngest child is feeling under-the-weather and only wants “pink soup” (tomato soup).

All of these conflicting agendas are occurring while Kristie is aware that she needs time after the kids go to bed for her to sort out various complex files on her laptop for tomorrow’s work day. French fries, steak and salad doesn’t seem like the simple meal it did just a short while ago.  

The concept of happy kids at mealtime doesn’t always mean the same thing as happy parents. Are happy kids at the dinner table kids that are squealing with delight or kids focused and eating their meal politely? Are happy parents conversing among themselves while children sit quietly at the table or does being happy parents mean laughing and joking with the children discussing the day’s adventures?

Sharing at least one daily meal together must become the paramount goal in today’s busy family. The social interaction that you and your children can count on sets the stage for the rest of your life together. If nutrition happens at the same time: win-win! But don’t sweat it.

Try to serve one or two things that everyone can and will eat. A basket of dinner rolls and a little dish of peanut butter with a butter knife can be a fancy way for your selective young eaters to daintily serve themselves something from the communal basket. When you make salad, just have the lettuce in the salad bowl and then other delightful veggies in tiny bowls placed on top of the lettuce. As you pass the salad bowl around you and your husband might select the feta cheese, onions and olives, your children might like diced apple, raisons, thin carrot slices and yummy croutons to sprinkle on their lettuce. Steak for the adults, and some sliced steak interspersed with hot dog for the kids. Pasta salad for the adults, mac and cheese for the kids.

Try to make the family dinner meal look similar in terms of what the kids are eating and what the adults are eating. Ideally, have the shared dishes requiring the same passing around and self-serving actions. Try to include kid-friendly items that keep them at the table longer. Your goal is to role model table manners and to teach them dinner conversation.

Don’t use meal time for negative interactions. Kids will just stop eating, and become even more particular about what they like for dinner. Teach them to ask a question related to the topic being discussed, or to share a similar story. “I have a green dress, too!” is a valid contribution to an on-topic conversation as your children learn to participate in the meal chatter.

It will be these dinner conversations, a few years down the road, that will keep you in the loop of their lives. It will be these hard earned family meal times that will provide your children with the structure to talk about what concerns them and what they find enjoyable in their day. These mealtimes will be one of the things you will miss the most when they grow up, move away and start their own lives and their own families.   

My husband and I learned so much about our children’s problem-solving skills and their ability to make decisions. Our mealtimes together gave us the closeness in our family that we continue to enjoy despite being on opposite sides of the continent. One of the loveliest story my daughter told me when she moved away to college was her room-mates meeting each night for dinner around a table that they purchased together at a yard sale. When children learn the richness of a family dinner, you’ve made a small contribution to their happiness and peace. Happy kids, happy life for all.    

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