OK, I admit, I have misled you with the headline. I have no idea how to successfully pull off pleasant family dinners when you have a baby or toddler. But it’s my goal, and thus my most recent research obsession.
I wanted to start having family dinners with my son by the time he turned 1. We are pretty much face-to-face with that deadline. Usually, my husband and I feed my son around 6 p.m., then we play some, have bath time, read books and then he’s in bed by 7 or 7:30. Then my husband and I can relax for a second, have a glass of wine, and cook our own dinner.
But it has always been important to me to teach my son good eating habits and build a strong family unit – both of which can be supported by family dinners. Research shows that children and parents eat healthier when they share regular dinners, and that children will make better grades and be less likely to drink and do drugs. So I am pretty sure right there that it’s my sure-fire golden ticket to raising a perfect, well-adjusted, genius child, right?
Yes, my kid is still a baby. Borderline toddler. I’m not worried yet about his grades or peer pressure to do drugs and he doesn’t yet tell me much about his day – save for the pointing and the “duh-dah-dah-dahs.” But why not start trying to set up the pattern now, especially since he’s eating all table food and mostly everything we eat?
But how do you avoid total chaos and massive meltdowns when you and your partner get home at 5:30 or later and the kid is whining to eat by ten of 6? We’re not used to eating that early, so we are usually not hungry yet. Plus, Silas isn’t much of a dinner companion when he’s tossing food off of his tray and smearing it in his hair.
All of that aside, I am determined. Perhaps too determined. To the point where during the few times we’ve tried it, I have mostly lost sight of why we are doing this in the first place. When I get frustrated and am snapping at my husband while trying to coax – or cram – bits of meatball into my son’s face, I’ve certainly derailed. The pressure to make and enjoy a meal for my family can be crushing.
In addition to reading all the Internet had to say on the topic, I probed the moms on my mom email listserv. Their answers varied widely, with some having done family meals since Day 1 and others still avoiding it at almost two years old. Some moms weren’t as bothered by the idea of fixing baby/toddler a separate meal from what the parents were eating, and were more willing to scramble an egg if it would mean less fussing and more eating. (Perhaps he’s a wee young for my hardcore eat-what-I’ve cooked-or-go-to-bed-hungry stance?) I was also reminded of my crock pot and of my jealously of moms who had a partner or live-in family member who got home early enough to plan and cook a good meal without losing their minds. Yet most of the moms agreed that the family meals can be a struggle.
Here are a couple other gems from my search:
- Try family dinner on the weekends. You have more time to prep and plan, and you can offer the little one a snack to tide him over.
- On nights where a family meal is impossible, sit down with your kid, have a snack of whatever he’s eating. I do this with Silas to show him I’m eating what he’s eating, and to engage him at the dinner table — even though “engage” at this point is chatting with him as he babbles and sometimes squeals and making silly sounds about his food.
- Set a goal to have a family dinner a couple times a week and build on it. This is where we are right now, and it seems to ease some of the pressure to have healthy, calm, and enjoyable meals every night right off the bat.
And here are a few other tips I will try to remind myself of as I forge ahead:
- Pick your battles. If a scrambled egg or toasted cheese over my slow-cooked beef stew means my kid will be less likely to freak out, maybe it’s a good idea. Maybe different meals but eaten together is better than a mad baby and frustrated mother. Chances are it takes regular short-order cooking for a toddler to really create that expectation.
- Don’t freak out and give up at the first sign of a failed meal. It’s just one meal. It doesn’t mean that you will never be able to manage schedules and menus and that your kid is on the fast-track to flunking and winding up in jail.
- Of course, not every meal has to be five-star. The other night we cooked a frozen pizza and had fruit and a salad, and miracle of miracles, everyone ate and everything was pleasant and enjoyable!
My husband says our kid is too young to really know or care about family dinners. Maybe he’s right. Maybe I’m jumping the gun here. Is there a magic age for setting the evening table? Either way, for my sanity and that of my entire family, this is one of those things where I have slowly work toward while trying to keep my vision and values in sight.
Here are a few fail-safe foods I’ve found my kid will eat:
-Scrambled egg (try sneaking some veggies in there)
-Any fruit cut into small pieces – mainly bananas, blueberries, and pears
-Whole wheat spinach ravioli
–Baby applesauce muffins
–Mini banana muffins
–Slow cooker turkey meatballs
What I’m Reading:
A few good kid/baby food sites: