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Family Matters

This Simple Switch Took the Stress Out of Dinnertime

One mom shares how they made mealtime simpler

It wasn't until I had my first child that I realized just how many parenting myths I had unwittingly absorbed. It turns out, for instance, that maternity leave is not actually like a vacation plus one baby. Another: Mealtime isn't automatically extra-special bonding time.

Yes, there are studies that prove the many social benefits of family dinner, but nobody talks about how, for some families (especially those with little kids), certain days can be just a tad on the stressful side.

When my first son was a toddler, he rejected most of my lovingly prepared meals. And when he looked at me and slowly pushed pieces of food off his highchair tray, it was hard not to throw a tantrum myself.

Oddly enough, what helped me get a grip was having a second kid. I learned lessons I wished I had known with my first, like, maybe it's not a bad thing if you're so busy you don't spend a ton of time convincing your baby that eating is a momentous occasion. Maybe it's okay to say, "Here, food-eat it or don't," while you throw a handful of peas on his tray on your way to doing four other things.

Either way, it helped me to realize that "family dinner" for us is just one of those parenting concepts (like "sleep when the baby sleeps") that we needed to adapt to make it work for us. Here's how we've taken the drama out of dinnertime.

Find creative ways to do the bare minimum. I've discovered that if you dress up an ordinary dinner with a clever name or move it to a different location, all of a sudden it becomes fun and special. On Saturday nights, the boys swarm over a "picnic" while we watch a family movie in the basement-but really it's just pretzels, baby carrots, cheese, and apple slices on a tray. And "Breakfast for Dinner" is code for "Mommy doesn't want to think beyond toast and cereal tonight." Even if the kids don't eat a bite, you are the amazing parent who came up with Flashlight Dinner and everyone will remember that.

Preventing a mess isn't necessarily easier than cleaning one up. With two boys, one being at a cute-but-Godzilla age, I've learned to pick my battles. Our second child refuses to be fed-and while he knows how to use utensils, he's not above eating oatmeal with his hands. Our kitchen floor sometimes looks like a composting heap. Being able to say, "The kitchen is appalling today, but that doesn't mean it will be like that every day" helps me to unclench.

Remember that kids are unpredictable. I've learned to accept that children can be infuriatingly fickle when it comes to food. My husband is still sometimes bewildered: "But you LOVE chili! You ate three bowls of it last time!" Let go of your expectations and realize that kids are allowed to change their minds, too.

Forgive dinner for the bad timing. We really mitigated our dinner stress when we realized that none of us are at our best in the early evening. We're tired! We're carrying the stresses and worries that come from getting through a day. None of us are bringing our A game.

Fortunately, dinner is not all we've got. There's the walk to school; there are the weekend mornings with all of us in bed with coffee and sippy cups of milk; there are lazy, rainy afternoons cuddling together and watching a movie; there are trips to the grocery store in which my older son proudly pushes his own cart. There are so many better-timed opportunities to be great together as a family...and that's why we took the pressure off dinner. And once we took the pressure off, it became so much more fun.