Having a table full of little ones can make meal time rather interesting – and messy and difficult and stressful. I remember hearing how other families had great dinner conversation, and how they all pitched in to clean up after the meal, and I wondered if it was true because I felt like I was up to my armpits in chaos.
But now, as a mom who has made it further along in this journey, I can honestly say meals do get easier, calmer, and even fun! But for those of you still in the trenches of only littles, let me give you some tips to make meal time the best it can be.
First of all, give yourself and your children some grace. They are little after all, and often they are simply behaving exactly the way little ones behave. Don’t put expectations on them that are not attainable at their age. And don’t beat yourself up because you are such a bad parent for not having your child trained to sit nicely at the table after a couple of tries. It takes time. It takes patience. And sometimes, it takes a few years.
Tip #1 – Set a Meal Reminder Timer
I wish I had learned this long ago! I now use my phone to tell me when to stop what I am doing and get going on dinner. With all little ones, you may need to do this for lunch and dinner (and perhaps even snack time!). The reason this is crucial is because hungry tummies become crazy kids in the blink of an eye. Moms are busy people, and need a reminder to stop what they are doing and attend to those hungry tummies before it gets out of hand.
When you use kid friendly dinnerware (like this set from Ikea) you not only save yourself the hassle of broken plates and cups, you also gain the opportunity to have your children start helping with table chores at a much younger age.
And this is sort of off topic, but these sippy cups are AWESOME! A friend got me started on these and I am in love! They don’t spill, they teach baby to drink from a real cup, and they are EASY to clean! Check your local store. Our favorites are made by Munchkin.
OK, back to the topic at hand…
Tip #3 – Expect Spills
Seriously – why in the world do we get in such a huff when our kids spill something? They don’t have the manual dexterity we adults have, and guess what, I still spill things! Don’t fill the glasses too full. Keep an eye on how the kids are sitting and where their plates are, but the absolute best thing you can do is keep a dry rag handy right there at the table. In fact, if you use washcloth napkins like we do, your dry rag is already there!
Tip #4 – Keep Kids in High Chairs as Long as Possible
OK, so I don’t mean until they fall asleep (although, that does happen from time to time). What I mean is don’t move kids to regular chairs until you absolutely have to. Most of the dining rooms in the houses we’ve lived in only accommodated 1 high chair at a time, but if you can manage it, keep kids in high chairs as long as you can. It greatly minimizes the messes and the chaos. Children are contained and easier to control when they are confined to a high chair. You can also buy “high chairs” that hook to the table like the one below if you do not have room for extra high chairs in your dining room.
I also highly recommend you bring your littlest ones to the table as soon as possible. We have a high chair that reclines so that even our smallest babies can join us at meal time.
Tip #5 – Create Meal Time Traditions that Make Sense
In our household, we typically serve from the table (unless it is a meal that has a lot of components – like tacos – that are better off served buffet style). The reason for this is that it keeps mom and dad from getting up multiple times throughout the meal, and it doesn’t tempt the children to leave the table as well. (Helpful Hint: If you don’t have a lot of room on your table, try using a rolling cart to keep the food nearby.)
We dish out the meal to the youngest ones to let it start cooling, and keep the plates near us as we pray so no one is eating while we pray. Prayers are short because young children do not understand why they can’t eat. If you want to do family devotions or a more in-depth Bible time, do it while they eat – they will be much more attentive.
Other meal time traditions that work well for little ones include singing a short song before or after the meal, having older ones help set the table, and making small talk that revolves around the food on their plate (remember, distracting a small child from their food usually means they quit paying attention to their food and subsequently, quit eating it). You can point out colors of food, ask them to find certain things on their plate, and ask them about the taste of the different foods.
Tip #6 – Discipline in Short, Sensible Segments
Unfortunately, you are going to have to discipline at the table from time to time (or maybe every time for a while). Here are a few of the behaviors we’ve had to discipline over the years and how we handled them:
*1 year old willfully screaming in high chair – Turn high chair around, facing away from everyone. Tell the 1 year old you will turn it back around when they stop. The second they stop, turn them back around. If they persist, scoot them out of the room in the high chair, still facing away from table, and explain again that as soon as they stop, they will be promptly scooted back in. Rarely have we had a situation persist beyond this, but the couple of times we have, I took the baby out of the high chair and away from the dining room completely so that everyone else could eat in peace while I worked to calm the child. And yes, sometimes that child didn’t get much of a dinner – and I had to eat mine later. But, like I said, this has been rare.
*3 year old not sitting in seat – This is pretty simple. Keep reminding them to sit. Make sure their chair is straight with the table, so it is harder to get up, and consider keeping that child near an adult to nip the standing in the bud as quickly as possible. Our son who did this wasn’t trying to be defiant, he just liked to keep moving and fidgeting, and that almost always resulted in him standing up at some point during the meal.
*Picky eater – I have to admit, we haven’t had many picky eaters, but I think that is because I just don’t allow it. I absolutely understand not liking certain foods – have you read this post? – but in our house, you have to try a bite before you declare it unfit for human consumption. And you are never, ever allowed to be loud and obnoxious about the fact that you don’t like something because that sort of nonsense influences other children and makes for a very rude houseguest when you eat at someone else’s table. Choosing to fuss will only get you more bites of the food you don’t like before you can be finished.
There was one time we had a child who would not eat his oatmeal, so he ended up sitting at the table, slowly spooning in bites until he finally finished it and hour later. However, looking back, I wouldn’t do that again. I would let him try it and if he chose not to eat it, so be it. But, there wouldn’t be anything else to eat until the next meal.
I will say that feeding your children a varied and unprocessed diet from the beginning will help tremendously with lessening the pickiness.
Tip #7 – Make Meal Time a Feast!
This may sound crazy, but I don’t mean make elaborate meals and have a big ole celebration every time you eat. I mean make meal time a fun time! Do your very best to put on a happy face and take time to smile at your babies. Talk and joke and laugh! Make a special drink or dessert on occasion. Let the kids bring a stuffed animal to the table as a guest. Be a family and try very hard to enjoy this time.
Right now, this is the family you have. No, they aren’t big. No, the conversation isn’t riveting. Yes, you spend a lot of time managing the chaos, but some day you will look back on it all and smile as the rose-colored glasses of veteran motherhood make you believe those were the good old days.
And frankly, they are. You are surrounded by chubby cherub faces who have no other place to be except sitting with you at the table. Cherish this moment – chaos and all.