We all know how hard it can be to keep kids sitting still and focused during a long meal. In the past, mealtimes used to last around 90 minutes but in today’s culture, the average family dinner is reduced to just 12 minutes. Taking this into account, you can see why keeping kids engaged during meal times during a multi-hour holiday feast is difficult!
Studies have shown that sharing meals together at the table provides a wealth of benefits for all family members. Children who participate in frequent family dinners are shown to eat better, perform better in school, engage in less risky behaviors in their teens and have better relationships with their parents.
So, while you may be looking for tips to keep the kids engaged during this holiday’s lengthy meals, we encourage you to apply them to lengthen the time of your family dinners throughout the year!
- Get your kids involved in meal preparation. When children help prepare a meal, they’re proud of what they’ve done and enjoy sharing their accomplishments at the table. Seeing people enjoying food that they’ve made will help them stay focused and engaged. There are many kitchen tasks that children of all ages can enjoy, from mashing and stirring for little ones to preparing simple recipes under supervision with older kids.
- Make sure they’re comfortable. It can be hard to enjoy your time at the table if the table is too high or your seat is too hard. Consider your child’s ergonomic needs for proper eating and help ensure they’re seated comfortably in a way that facilitates self-feeding and interacting with other diners. Placing something under your toddler’s feet so their legs aren’t dangling is helpful too.
- Serve dishes that reflect your family’s history and heritage. Do some research with your child regarding traditional holiday dishes from your grandparent’s or great-grandparents country or culture. Not only will your child enjoy learning about food and family history, but these dishes invite the sharing of family stories during the meal. Making and sharing these dishes can help establish a sense of family identity within your child!
- Make it fancy. Little kids especially enjoy playing “dress-up,” so treating your family holiday dinner like a fancy and important event can make it fun. Ensure children have pretty place settings and “special” dishes or cups. If you’re making use of a “kid’s table” make it just as elegant as for adults. Flameless candles, unbreakable stemware, an easy-clean holiday tablecloth and other kid-friendly exchanges can be made to prevent accidents. Provide elements that can also entertain, like a printed “menu” and crayons or small handheld puzzles. Consider a dry run or two with your child to practice table manners and polite conversation. You can roleplay you’re having dinner with kings and queens!
- Include children of all ages in dinner conversation. Even young children enjoy engaging in dinnertime chat with family and visitors. Include family-friendly topics that interest children such as stories about how their parents or grandparents met, first jobs or how each family member got their name. Other topics children of all ages can participate in include dream vacations, favorite memories, asking who they admire and why, or what would make their perfect day. Older children and teens especially enjoy talking about their favorite celebrities, music, movies and games. Ask open-ended questions to keep the conversation flowing!
- Know their limits. The younger the child, the less time you can expect them to sit quietly at the table. For very young children, a two-hour dinner can feel like torture! If dinner is at home, add a small craft table with activities for children to enjoy when they leave the table. Things like activity, coloring and picture books or simple craft projects can keep them occupied while adults finish their meal. Purchasing a special item like new crayons or puzzle book with their favorite characters will give them something to look forward to after dinner, If you’re expecting several small children, provide enough materials for sharing to avoid squabbles. For babies, a bouncy chair is a good after-dinner option.
With a little preparation and planning, you can transform a long, boring holiday dinner into a fun, engaging and educational experience for your children. Making a point to regularly sit down for family dinners throughout the year will give them wonderful memories, build family bonds and gives them great practice for future holiday meals.