Dinner Time Drama?
Updated: Aug 8
Dinner time as a “social construction”
When I first started working as a nanny I took an Open University course in Nutrition, and among all the science about carbohydrate molecules and differing nutritional requirements of different age groups, one thing struck me most – that mealtimes are a social construction that varies enormously in different parts of the world. We are very fixed into patterns based on our idea of what is “normal”. We eat specific foods at specific times of day simply because that is what everybody else is doing, and it is what we are used to. We have a fixed idea of how everybody at the table should behave, and we pass this onto our children from an early age. I always love to challenge a social construction, to take it apart and analyse it, see how it works. And then perhaps switch it around like a Rubix cube, and see if it doesn’t work better another way! If your dinner time isn’t working, lets think about why. At the end of this article I will also be answering some some dinner time FAQs inspired by my recent online parenting surgery, “Dinner Time Drama”!.
Dinner time dynamics!
Dinner time can be very stressful for parents. One parent recently described it to me as “...one of the main battle grounds...” of parenting. But dinner time can also be very stressful for children – what is expected of them at dinner time? It can often be an awful lot, a surprisingly small amount of which is about the eating. I encourage parents who are struggling with dinner times to consider the dynamics of the dinner table, the function of the meal, the time, duration, and setting.
For example, is dinner time formal or informal? Why? Is this based on your own experience as a child? Is your child expected to answer questions about their day while they eat? Is your child being judged or lectured about their schoolwork, eating habits, or body image while they eat? Who is present at the meal? Who sits next to who? Who sits opposite them? Who sits at the head of the table? Is there teasing between siblings? What shape is your table? Does it make a difference? All these questions can be helpful to analyse and improve dinner times.
Is dinner time formal or informal?
The English are known to have a slight fixation on dining etiquette. We think that others will judge us (and our children) based on our table manners. Is this really true? I personally prefer empathy, politeness and kindness as values in others, and have a fairly relaxed approach to dining etiquette. I am often guilty of switching knives and forks (apparently the English do not switch knives and forks), of spooning soup towards me (apparently soup should be spooned away from you), and of resting my elbows on the table!
It is important to teach children good table manners, but there is a time and a place for everything, and a hungry, tired child is not always the most willing student. Children learn a lot by imitating others (so make sure you are modelling desirable table manners!), and are most likely to want to imitate their peers and those that they admire and respect. You can do your best at home, but much of what they pick up will be from their friends at school and later in life.
What is the purpose of this meal?
It is always good to ask yourself “what is the purpose of this meal?” before getting too stressed and anxious about things, and feeling guilty about how terrible your family’s dinner times are. Mealtimes have different functions – celebrations, family occasions, eating out, socialising, formal settings. It is good to identify the different purposes for each, and apply different rules accordingly. Each mealtime should have a primary function, and that should be your goal. All other considerations should be secondary.
For example, after school children are very tired, and very hungry, and the main purpose of this meal should be to feed them a nutritious, filling meal - not to enforce strict table manners, or to introduce a half a dozen new healthy foods. At the weekend, if you are all eating together as a family, maybe ordering a takeaway or going out for a pizza, this can be a better time to tempt your child to try something new. Things are different again if your child has a friend over for tea - you want your child to have fun, and don’t want to embarrass them in front of their friend by criticizing their eating habits or picky eating. Rules change again if your in-laws are visiting (strict table may manners may apply, but this is probably not the best time to introduce new foods), or if you are visiting friends for a meal (your child may not like the food they are given, but need to be polite about it).
Different rules should apply for different occasions, and while your child needs to learn these rules, you can make it fun. Choose a relaxed mealtime to turn into a fun “restaurant practice” or “table manners practice” and give your child a treat or special dessert for good effort. Reward charts can help as an incentive in this case.
Is your child expected to answer questions about their day while they eat? Is your child being judged or lectured about their schoolwork, eating habits, or body image while they eat?
This can be one of the worst parts of dinner time for some children. Sitting at the family dinner table and having to publicly answer questions about their day in front of what can often feel like a hostile jury of their peers can be really hard. Especially if relationships between siblings or parent and child are strained. In my opinion, the dinner table is not the place for the classic “How was your day at school?” question. If you really want to know how your child’s day was, take them out for a walk after dinner, and ask them this while walking side by side, in nature, and you will get a much better answer.
Dinner table dynamics, as discussed below, can make answering these questions so much harder. The dinner table is also not the place to discuss your child’s academic achievements or failures, their social relationships, their eating habits, or body image. These topics are too sensitive, personal, and stressful to talk about while eating, and in front of an audience. If you struggle with this, or find “awkward silences” just too awkward, try leaving the radio on while you eat, or keeping conversation topics casual and neutral. Talk about your own day, and your own feelings if you want to, and leave it up to the others if they want to join in!
Is there something else on your child’s mind?
Is your child stressed or anxious about something else that is going on in their life? This may affect appetite, and can also provoke a desire in your child to try to control something at a time when they feel that they have no control in another area of their life. Controlling what they do and don’t eat is often a symptom of stress, but can be interpreted as challenging behaviour at the dinner table. A stressed or anxious child may also regress to former eating habits or preferences. Mealtimes can be a sign of this, but are not the place to address the problem! It is best to do this during some one-to-one time with your child in a situation in which they feel comfortable and at ease. Again, try taking your child out for a walk, in nature after dinner, and you will get much more information out of them about how they are feeling.
Who sits where? Who is in the “power seat”? Who is going to put up the most resistance to you?
Bernado Tirado suggests in Psychology Today that children learn “group setting dynamics” from an early age within their families. They learn to pick up on cues to conform to social norms. One of these cues is the “power seat” – the person who sits at the head of the table has the most authority, is the leader, is in control, and is there to intimidate. Who sat at the head of your childhood dinner table? And who sat to their immediate right or left? Whether we know it or not, where we sit at the table affects the behaviour of the others at the table. If you sit in the middle, you send the message that you are approachable, part of the team, and there to collaborate. At a square table, the person sitting opposite you (in the “gun-slinger” position) is the person most likely to put up the most resistance to you. At a round table (a “King Arthur” table”), everybody is of equal status, the table is more relaxed and informal, and the authority is shared.
These ideas can be helpful to enable us to deconstruct bad behaviour at mealtimes. If you or your partner don’t sit at the head of the table, who does? Is it the oldest sibling? Do they exert authority over the others, or intimidate them? It might be time for a change. And if your child is putting up resistance, consider who is sitting opposite them. Is it you? Are you in the “gun-slinger” position? Or is it an older sibling, who perhaps they find challenging?
What shape is your dinner table? Is it round or square? Does it make a difference?
Award winning lifestyle website the The Spruce suggests that from a general feng shui perspective, round or oval dining tables are considered better than square or rectangle ones. Rounded, flowing shapes are thought to contribute to a more even distribution of energy (the “King Arthur” table, as mentioned earlier). A round or oval table will make everyone feel more welcome, equal and at ease.
Blue Mountain Institute teaches us that while Chinese dining favours round tables, and mealtimes are loud, lively and dynamic, in the West, rectangular tables are more common, and dining is more formal, quiet and calm. In terms of yin and yang, round shapes are yang (dynamic and mobile) and square or rectangular shapes are yin (static and stable). What kind of mealtime are you trying to achieve? What kind of mealtimes do you have? If things aren’t working, maybe it’s time to switch things up a little?
Other simple reasons for problems at dinner time:
- Time of meal – is it too early or too late? Is your not child hungry enough (they had a big snack recently), or too hungry (and past the point of no return behaviour wise)? This can be tricky if you have a big age gap between siblings, and you may have to do two settings (don’t worry, this won’t be for long!)!
- Length of mealtime – the younger the child, the shorter the amount of time they can spend sitting still doing one thing. They may not be able to sit at the table for as long as older members of the family. Try to keep things short and sweet.
- Food served at meal – are you trying too hard to introduce new foods, or pushing too quickly to change your child’s diet or eating habits? These things take time, and if your child is hungry, they will find it upsetting to find a plateful of unfamiliar food. Try not to take it personally when your child doesn’t like something that you have spent ages cooking!
- Developmental stage/fussy eating phase. It is very normal for children (especially toddlers to go through periods of fussy eating. Read my fussy eating blog post for more on this!).
- Your child is teething (or for older children they might have a wobbly tooth). Certain foods might cause pain or discomfort, but your child may not be able to articulate this.
- Your child is very tired - when I am very tired I find it hard to face a full meal and polite conversation, and often just prefer some toast and an early night! Children are the same.
- Your child is feeling ill, or has been ill, and has lost their taste for certain foods but are unable to verbalise this. (A sore throat or a funny tummy can have a big impact on appetite or what you fancy eating!)
Ten tips to improve eating habits and your child’s relationship with food:
1. Size isn’t everything – shrink their portion size if they are struggling.
2. Condiments and sauces are your friend – find your child’s favourites.
3. Healthy options – offer a few different options at each mealtime, let your child choose what they want to eat.
4. Don’t be too hard on yourself or your child – things don’t always work out perfectly, and families go through rough patches. Try not to panic, things will work themselves out.
5. Be a good role model – make sure you show your child that you enjoy eating, have good table manners, and sit properly at the table.
6. Involve your child with food preparation – get them to help out and experience all parts of the meal preparation from shopping to chopping!
7. Never give up on a particular food – your child may not like a particular food now, but their tastes might have changed in six months or a years’ time.
8. Accept your child’s preferences – your child will have their own food preferences, as do all adults. Try not to take it personally if these differ to your own!
9. Use the mother-in-law/best friend approach – treat your child with empathy and respect at mealtimes, as you would your mother-in-law or best friend.
10. Don’t impose your own food preferences on your child – let your child make their own choices about food – be it vegetarianism or a gluten free diet, what works for you will not necessarily work for your child.
Dinner Time FAQs
Below are some Dinner Time FAQs inspired by my recent online parenting surgery Dinner Time Drama!
Q1. What time is it best to have dinner, straight after school or later in the evening?
A1. Most families I have known are firmly fixed either one way or the other. This may be to do with what the parent themselves did as a child! Did you have your tea as soon as you came home from school, or did you have a snack and then eat dinner later? An earlier tea will suit younger children, while a later tea will suit parents who would like to eat with their children. There is no right or wrong answer, you will just have to see which works best for your family. Things may change in a couple of years as your children get older and their routines change. Do they have after school activities or homework to do? Children will often be calmer and more able to focus on homework after dinner (but a substantial snack can also work). In my experience, I have most often given younger children a snack straight after school, followed by an after-school activity or homework, then dinner at around 5pm. If the children are really tired the dinner time can be shifted to 4.30pm. Whichever timing option you choose, there will probably be a snack involved, either after school or before bedtime. See what works best for you. What might work best is when it suits YOU to do the cooking??
Q2. My husband doesn't get home until 6.30 or 7pm, should we wait for him to eat dinner? It seems late for the children.
A. I agree this is a little late for younger children, and it would be a little unreasonable for your husband to expect them to wait this long before dinner (unless they are 11+ ages?). Most children would be in their pyjamas or the bath by then (this doesn’t mean that he can't spend some quality time with them – instead of spending dinner time with them could he do bath-time as soon as he gets home, or story time?). You could make sure to eat together as a family on both Saturdays and Sundays, and also make sure to include some regular "Daddy nights" when you leave Daddy and the kids to their own devices - let Daddy and the kids prepare their own dinner and eat together (perhaps while you go out somewhere nice?). For older children 6pm or 6.30pm should be ok, as long as they get a hearty snack after school.
Q3. Does it matter if I don't eat with my children? The timing doesn't seem right and to be honest I don't enjoy eating with them.
A3. I don't think this matters on school-nights - children are usually so tired and hungry that all they need is a full tummy and some love. They will need to eat fairly early and get into their pyjamas fairly early. They will probably not be the most charming dinner companions when hungry and tired either! Try to eat with them at the weekends, and choose something that you all enjoy eating, and that you won't feel too offended if they don't eat (order a takeaway or cook something simple like spaghetti or a frozen pizza?), and make mealtimes fun and absorbing for them (put some music on, have lots of dishes on the table for them to help themselves to), and make sure there is an nice dessert to wait for - children find it hard to sit at the table for too long. Ask them to help with little tasks like laying the table and clearing the dishes away afterwards, so it doesn’t feel like too much of a chore for you!
Q4. We seem to be stuck in a rut eating the same meals over and over again! Do you have any recipe suggestions?
A4. Is there anything they enjoy eating in restaurants, at friend’s houses, or at their grandparents that you could replicate? Ask them if there is anything they eat at school that they really enjoy. They might surprise you. I have replicated dishes from restaurants and cafes in the past, and learned with surprise what children eat when at their grandparents. Children often spot another child eating something like sushi and want to try it. And of course you can always get your stack of cookery books down, open them up on the floor, and get your child to point at something that they think looks yummy. This has worked for me in the past, and can be a really nice activity for a rainy day!
Q5. My children argue and bully each other during dinner time. They shout and insult each other, and nothing I do makes any difference. The youngest is struggling with dinner time and eating less.
A6. Consider the timing. They might be overtired. Are they not hungry enough, or too hungry, and past the point of no return behaviour-wise? Consider changing the time, start by trying half an hour earlier. I would also recommend changing the seating plan with particular reference to the "power seat" and the "gun-slinger seat" (see above) for those who cause the most trouble or are on the receiving end. Is there another area of the house where they could eat, or a different table? Maybe take the youngest away from the pack for a little while and give him some one-to-one TLC, and do the same for the instigator of the bullying. See what else is going on in their lives that may be the cause of their challenging behaviour. Things will change, and siblings will work things out eventually.
Q6. Does it matter if I just give my children snacky dinner like beans on toast or sandwiches for dinner? I can't face cooking every day!
A6. I think this is definitely OK sometimes, especially when you yourself are feeling worn out, but make sure you mix it up with some nutritious home cooked meals some days. When you have the time and energy, why not try making really big batches of your children's favourite meals, and putting them in the freezer in portions, you will be so grateful to whip them out for a quick dinner! At the weekends or in the holidays try to get your children involved with the cooking - it can become an activity in itself and will teach them valuable life skills. Let them help with age appropriate tasks, and even choose which meal to prepare.
Q7. My children won't all eat the same thing, sometimes I end up making 3 different meals in one night, I feel like I am running a restaurant! It is exhausting!
A7. This can be demanding, I totally understand how you feel! But it shoes how much you love them and respect them as individuals by how hard you are willing to try to keep them happy. But you can't keep this up for every meal, unless you are a professional chef with a team of staff! Why not draw up a schedule for the week, and decide on what you are willing to do on each day (make sure it fits in with your needs, and other demands on your time). Maybe on a Saturday night as a treat they could each have their favourite meal (even if it’s just a frozen pizza or nuggets!). On a Sunday you could all share a traditional roast with various side dishes (make sure that there is at least one side dish that each child likes!). If you have any free time (or when you are cooking already), try to do some big batch cooking of certain meals to please either the fussiest or the majority - you will be glad of the effort on the day you grab them from the freezer! And a few days during the week make a "base" meal, like pasta, couscous, rice, or jacket potatoes, and lay out a selection of simple sauces or toppings for your family to add themselves.
Q8. We never eat together as a family. My husband is always busy on his laptop and my eldest (14) hates sitting down to eat with the family. Is this bad?
A8. No it's not bad, as long as it doesn't bother you too much (if it upsets you, then it might be time to discuss it as a family). Families go through phases and transitions, members drift apart and then return to the fold. Usually the harder you push for somebody to join in, the harder they will resist, so the short-term solution is just to let them do what they want (for now!), but with some rules applied - e.g. you all eat together on Sundays, and on Saturdays your husband cooks for the family. You are not the chef! Neither are you the event coordinator! Teenagers are notoriously tricky, especially at mealtimes. Are you expecting too much, grilling your teen about their day or academic achievements at the table? Try encouraging him prepare his/her own food, when they get hungry. You will be teaching your teen valuable life skills, and it might turn into a fun activity that you can do together. The same might work for your husband!
Q9. My youngest (4) refuses to eat anything but pasta and ham sandwiches. What can I do? She won't touch most vegetables.
A9. Try not to worry too much. This is just a phase, and won't be the case forever. How many 25 year olds do you know who will only eat pasta and ham sandwiches? Not a lot! Take your foot off the gas and slow down, things will work themselves out and pushing too hard will only make your daughter more resistant. I am pretty sure she eats more than just pasta and ham sandwiches. Does she eat breakfast cereal? With milk? Does she drink fruit juice? And which vegetables WILL she eat? Most kids are pretty fussy when it comes to veggies, you just have to persevere and get creative! Read my blog post on fussy eaters for more tips and advice on this!
Q10. My children have terrible table manners. They pick at their food with their fingers and talk with their mouths full. My youngest (5) still sometimes spits out her food or puts her face in her plate and eats like a dog!! I don't know how this happened as I was raised to eat properly myself! When my in-laws come round or we go to stay with my parents I am mortified, and end up getting defensive about it and things turn sour. How can I make my children improve their table manners!?
A10. Don't worry, you are not alone! Kids often go through phases like this. Are they seeking a reaction? Do they get one? Make sure you eat with your children often, and model the correct table manners yourself. Peer pressure will become a big factor when your children eat at school or with friends - no child wants to be laughed at or pointed at, so they will quickly get their act together. This is one of the few situations where I would recommend a reward chart with a points system. You need to set up a "table manners" lesson meal, where you instruct your children on the correct way for them to act at the table. Try to make it fun. The reward chart can be a reminder of this. Do the "table manners" lesson again before any visiting guests arrive or eating out takes place, and your children will pick up the skills eventually.
Keep an eye on my website for my next online parenting surgery, these run once a month, usually on the first Saturday of the month! And if you have a topic suggestion, let me know! All suggestions welcome.
Need a little fun at dinner time?
Cool product alert! Do you have a fussy toddler who struggles to stay at the table during mealtimes? Mum Sophia Procter took things to another level when her little boy lost all interest in dining, and came up with the super cool, British made, Munchy Play children's tableware range!
Sophia says "...It was another typical day in the life of being a parent, with my fussy eater having a meltdown at the dinner table. Reaching out for his favourite toy train, I created a make-shift track around his kid's plate, and that’s where it all began... This inspired me to create the world’s first kid's plate with a built-in track. For my house, it definitely makes a difference in terms of bringing my son to the table and keeping him there..."
Visit Munchy Play to find out more! (Photo courtesy of Munchyplay.com).
Get in touch if you have any dinner time dramas, or need some hands-on support at dinner time! I would love to hear from you!
Need help with child behaviour, child development, parenting skills, or just some hands-on support with your kids? You are in the right place. Check out the rest of my website for full details of my friendly, confidential, open-minded parenting support services.