How to Help Kids Make the Transition to Mealtime

I get a lot of questions about this topic at this time of year. It’s the holiday season. Which means family meals. Those big family get togethers can highlight something that you may have been dealing with on a daily basis: your child won’t sit at the table to eat a meal. I shared a post on this topic last year. You can read it here.

Today, I’m sharing some additional ways to help kids sit at the table and behave at meals. In particular, the strategies that I’m sharing today help kids with the transition from playtime to mealtime. A lot of kids struggle with settling down and sitting at the table to eat a meal. Dinner can be a particularly challenging time. Especially for toddlers, preschoolers and younger school-age kids. There’s can be a lot of frantic energy at this time of day. You’re rushing home from work, through rush-hour traffic, to pick the kids up from school/ daycare/ extracurricular activities. The kids haven’t seen you all day long so they’re excited to see you and tell you everything that happened. The dog’s been home alone all day and so is overjoyed that the family home again. Everyone is hungry. You’ve got a precious few minutes to get dinner on the table. Add to all this chaos the fact the many kids have difficulty transitioning from excitement to calm, and it’s no wonder that kids have a hard time behaving at dinner.

The reality is that life isn’t going to slow down any time soon. So, the strategies that I’m sharing today create a routine that helps kids manage this transition. It helps kids focus their energy and transition from an excited state to a calm state so that they can do a good job of eating.

Strategy #1: Kids Set the Table. This strategy helps in several ways. First, routine helps kids. Routine clearly tells kids what’s expected of them. When kids know what’s expected of them, they can strive to succeed at meeting those expectations. While it may seem like more work for you to get the kids to set the table, you’re actually giving the kids a gift. The gift of self-confidence. Kids gain self-confidence as they master skills, such as the skills of setting the family table. Second is the practical aspect – it gives the kids something to do. Third: it gives kids a sense of ownership about meals. They help make meals happen. As a result, they’re now more invested in succeeding at mealtime. Fourth: It focuses kids on the fact that mealtime is coming up. Otherwise, if you’re preparing dinner and the kids are playing/ on the ipad/ watching TV, they can become engrossed in what they’re doing and then you need to pull them away from that in order to come to the table to eat.

Give kids age-appropriate tasks for setting the table. Here are some examples of what kids can do at different ages. Of course, there will be coordinated, responsible kids who can do more at younger ages. And, there will be kids who are more easily distracted and disaster-prone, and you’ll want to wait until they’re older to take on more responsibilities. Three year olds can carry un-breakable things to the table, such as placemats, napkins, cutlery and plastic plates/cups. Four and five year olds can help arrange these unbreakable items in their proper places at individual seats. Kids six years and up can start carrying over to the table breakable items such as plates and glasses.

Strategy #2: Say Grace: In many cultures a blessing or prayer is said before people start to eat. Taking a moment to do so changes the energy from frantic busy to calm (okay, perhaps not fully calm, but calmer). When adults take the lead in changing the energy, kids can follow suit. If your culture has a practice that fits your personal beliefs, follow that tradition. If not, you can create your own family routine that does match your beliefs. Don’t believe in a higher power? No problem, you can do a gratitude circle where everyone shares one thing for which they’re grateful/thankful that day. Are you a big reader? Why not read a short poem? Be creative and come up with something that matches your values. As long as it has a focusing and calming energy to it – it’s a good choice.

Kristen Yarker, MSc, RD helps moms and dads support your picky kids to get good nutrition today…and instill a life-long love of healthy eating. Find out more:

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