If every mealtime at your house is calm and peaceful, your kids are always perfectly behaved at the table, they always appreciate everything you cook for them and they never, ever whine or complain about the meal, then this blog post is NOT for you.
But, what I hear from most families is that mealtime does not look this idyllic 🙂
In fact, there’s a whole lotta complaining happening at meals, particularly at dinnertime. Whether your kids are complaining about coming to the table (“I’m not hungry”, “I don’t like what’s for dinner”, “I want to finish this game”) or complaining once they get there (“I won’t eat that”, “that’s yucky”, “I want something else”, “I’m all done”), the constant complaining can be enough to drive you crazy right?
But I’ll let you in on a little secret. As much as complaining isn’t the most effective form of communication, our kids don’t know that yet. And that’s what complaining is – it’s their way of trying to communicate something to you.
And that something they are trying to communicate? They don’t love being at the table.
It’s true. The reality is, most kids reallllllly don’t want to be there. All that is complaining is their way of saying, “I’m not loving this situation and I want out”.
So with that in mind, my sure-fire solution for getting rid of complaining at meals once and for all doesn’t involve yelling. Or punishment. Or even giving in (because giving in to complaining just makes the complaining worse in my experience).
To get rid of complaining at meals, all you need to do is make the table a pleasant place to be!
Think about it – if your child actually looks forward to and enjoys something, do they complain about it? NO!
So, the ticket to a complaint-free mealtime is to cultivate a fun and pleasant environment that kids enjoy being (no yelling or forcing required!)
Not sure of where to start when it comes to creating mealtimes that kids actually enjoy?
Here are a few key ideas that will get you moving in the right direction:
Have you ever taken then time to consider your facial expressions and demeanour at the dinner table? I know it’s hard to be happy when your kids are complaining or aren’t eating, but making an effort to put a big old smile on your face (even if you have to grit your teeth to do it!) can really make a difference. Kids feed off our energy and sometimes a simple smile can be contagious.
Personally, I have to make a conscious effort to leave the craziness of the day behind me before I sit down for dinner with the kids. But I always take a second to just take a few deep breaths. This helps me go into the meal feeling more calm and centred. And when I do this, the smile comes a little more naturally 🙂
Focus on anything BUT the food
The next time you sit down at the table, I want you stop and notice the first thing you talk about with your child. Are you asking them to try something? Are you trying to convince them that the meal is going to be delicious? Are you asking them whether or not they like it?
Any sort of focus on what and how much they are eating – no matter how subtle you think you are being! – can feel like pressure to a child. How would you feel if every time you sat down at the table, all eyes were on your and your eating habits?
All this attention can be really stressful – particularly for a picky child or a child who has some anxiety around food. And this pressure makes the table a place they would rather avoid!
I always tell parents that during mealtimes they should focus on anything BUT the food. It might seem weird at first, but the key here is to eliminate food from the conversation completely. Instead, use mealtimes as an opportunity to connect as a family. You can talk about your day. Your plans for the weekend. The weather. ANYTHING but how much or whether they are eating.
Once the pressure is off, kids will start to see mealtimes as something to look forward to instead of something to dread.
Always serve something they like
Even if we make an effort NOT to focus on the food, it doesn’t mean our kids are going to follow our lead!
A lot of mealtime complaining really does come down to the meal. Usually it’s because kids are unhappy with what’s being served or maybe it’s because they’re feeling anxious about trying something new.
To be honest, I feel their pain. It can be really upsetting for a child to come to a meal hungry, only to feel like there is nothing being served that they can eat. And for some kids, the idea of eating (or even seeing) certain foods can actually cause serious anxiety. No wonder they don’t like coming to the table!
The key to having kids feel more relaxed about what’s being served (and thus complain less) is to make sure that you always serve at least ONE thing that you know that like or usually accept.
Whether it’s bread, noodles, rice, or even a side of fruit, it should be something that they can fill up on if it’s the only thing they choose to eat.
When a child knows they will always have a safe and familiar choice at mealtimes, the anxiety about going hungry is eliminated. Less anxiety = happier about coming to the table = less complaining.
What I often see happening with families is that complaining from kids breeds frustration in parents, which leads to being grumpy or stern with the kids at the table, which leads to more complaining. It’s a vicious cycle! Does this sound like a place you’d like to hang out?
Try taking a step back and reminding yourself that mealtime doesn’t always have to be so serious! Aside from smiling, make an effort to laugh, joke around and have fun at the table.
My favourite ways to add a little more fun at mealtimes? Tell a joke (knock-knock jokes are great for younger kids), ask a silly question (if you combined a chicken and an elephant together, what would you get?), play a game (we love two truths and a lie) or even get goofy with your food (Jon’s favourite is the old “pulling the food out of the ear” move – gets a giggle every time).
The added bonus of making your kids laugh is that you’ll likely have more fun at the dinner table too!
Through it all, keep in mind that as parents it’s pretty darn tough to be perfect at all of this. Listening to kids complain can be frustrating as heck. But next time you find yourself exasperated at the thought of another family dinner, remember that when mealtimes are pleasant, and kids are busy having fun and enjoying themselves at the table, there’s a lot less room for complaining 🙂