Calm the Kids for Dinner

By Casey Seidenberg

Mealtime doesn’t have to turn into mayhem.  My two boys were wild the other night, laughing uncontrollably at absolutely everything, chasing each other around the house and entirely unable to settle down. When I wrangled them to the dinner table, the wildness continued. They were kicking each other under the table and laughing so hard they spit their food clear across the room. Not the type of dinner I had planned. Apparently, I had allowed our positive dinner habits to fall by the wayside over the holidays. And now that my baby is a factor at the table, trying to climb out of her highchair and throwing food to the floor, I find myself more preoccupied during dinner than I have been in years. I needed to make a change.

So I stopped our dinner mid-bite. I got the boys up and asked them to walk outside, take three deep breaths and walk back to the dinner table ready to share a meal the right way. They knew what this meant, as they’ve done it hundreds of times before.

To help set the mood we got out a few votive candles, dimmed the lights, put on some classical music and filled a pitcher of water for the table. Then we all sat back down, held hands (baby included), took another deep breath and shared our “thanks.” Miraculously, our dinner turned from a messy, loud, boisterous feast into a calm, enjoyable hour together.

Here are some tips my family has learned along the way to make dinner a meaningful meal:

1 Sit and eat with your children. Even once a week. Modern work schedules make this harder and harder to accomplish, but eating together makes children feel special, more unified as a family, and studies show it helps with vocabulary, social skills and table manners.

2 Place everything on the table before you sit down. This way, you won’t have to get up every time a child is thirsty for another glass of water or asks for seconds. I know it can be hard to imagine if you have little kids, but if you are organized, you really can sit for an entire meal and actually eat with your family.

3 Begin dinner by holding hands and saying thanks. This is an important way to separate the hectic day from the calmer meal. Holding hands creates a connection around the table, stressing that you are a family. Saying thanks every day is a positive habit to instill at a young age.

4 Play calm music and light a candle or two (assuming your children are old enough not to treat them as toys). This sets a peaceful mood and calms the nervous systems of even the most hyper boys.

5 Turn off the TV and talk with your children. Studies show that children eat more and miss cues that they are full when they are watching television during a meal. This contributes to obesity and unhealthful eating habits.

6 Avoid topics that cause tension. Who wants their stomach in knots during dinner? It doesn’t make for effective digestion. We also don’t want our children to associate mealtime with the time their parents always break bad news or tackle upsetting subjects. Do that later; make dinner a happy time.

7 Eat slowly and remember to chew. Sounds obvious, I know, but most people eat too quickly and fail to chew. In our family we call it “shoveling our food,” and it is not a compliment! Chewing sounds obvious, I know, but is the first part of proper digestion, and without it, food enters our stomachs in a form that is much more difficult to digest. This can cause gas and an upset stomach, and inhibit nutrient absorption. So eat slowly and chew.

8 Create a jar of conversation starters. Or do what we did and buy a set of idea cards ($25) at I assure you I would never have asked my boys if they “would rather have no rules to live by or the rules they have now” had I not been prompted by a card. And I never would have heard their very insightful, hilarious responses. (They begged me not to share them publicly.)

9 Unwind. Stop thinking about work. Be in the moment.

How nice would it be if our children remembered family meals, even if they are just once a week, as positive, happy, laughter-filled events with parents who were present and relaxed.

First published in the Washington Post on Thursday, February 7, 2013.