Secrets to Simplifying and Enjoying Family Mealtime with Little Ones

by | Oct 9, 2019

Mealtime is one of the most chaotic times of day in our house. My husband and I both dread dinne for the madness that it brings.

After having kids, dinnertime was brought new meaning. It used to be having a good conversation, relaxing, and casually sipping a glass of wine with a delicious meal.

Now, it’s about how fast we can get through it, bribing children to eat with songs, games, and stories, controlling the inevitable mess, and how soon we can get them into their pajamas and straight to bed.

When you first experience family mealtime with your little baby, it typically consists of one parent holding and rocking the baby while the other takes a few bites and then switch off. It’s rarely relaxing unless it’s during the first couple of weeks where your baby sleeps all day long.

As they get bigger and can sit in a high chair and self-feed, things can get easier, but also crazier at the same time. They may be able to finger-feed more instead of having to spoon-feed them, but this means that the mess will grow exponentially.

Now, feeding a 2-year-old and an infant while also trying to feed ourselves is hardly an enjoyable experience most nights. Typically, we don’t even try to have family meals together, but just feed the kids first so we can somewhat enjoy our meal as a couple.

However, I wanted to reclaim family mealtime and make it part of our daily routine. We have now learned and adapted to our new routine and have developed ways to simplify the chaos and reduce our struggle.

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Take back mealtime so your babies and toddlers can have a nice experience eating with their family. Follow these tips to enjoy dinner time again.

Top Tips for Simplifying Mealtime and Enjoying it as a Family

I was desperate to figure out how to make mealtimes less stressful on my husband and I so that we could enjoy it as a family.

I try to follow most of these tips below to reduce the chaos and allow us to spend that quality family time together. While there’s still clean up and minimal adult conversation, it’s nice to sit down as a family once a day.

Read below for all the tips to make family dinner easier and simplify mealtime.

Meal Planning/ Prepping

Keep it simple

The importance of family mealtime is sitting down together as a family to enjoy a meal. It’s not imperative that you cook an extravagant meal every night. Busy parents have way too much on their plate to worry about putting together a fancy dinner every night.

So don’t put in too much work! If you’re eating takeout and your baby is eating from a pouch, don’t feel guilty. This is still family dinner time and you’re still spending that quality time together.

There are plenty of nights when we just order a pizza, Chinese food, or a ready-made meal from the grocery store. As long as we are all sitting down and eating together, I am happy.

Crock Pot or Instapot meals are also simple meal options. These take the guess work out of premeasured ingredients and you can just set the timer and forget about it. It’s great for just dumping a few ingredients in before work and having a perfectly home cooked meal waiting when you get home.

Plan out meals in advance

It gets way too chaotic to plan a meal the day of. Finding a recipe, grocery shopping, and cooking all in the same day can be pretty crazy. Pick a night (usually on the weekend) before you do your grocery shopping and plan out all your meals for the week.

You can even stick to a simple meal plan that is the same each week to get you started. For example, every Monday is a pasta, every Tuesday is a casserole, every Wednesday is a crock pot, every Thursday is take out, and every Friday is a sandwish. This will help meal planning be a little more simple and quicker to manage.

Another way to have all your meals planned in advance is to use meal delivery services, like Hello Fresh. If you haven’t tried this yet, you must! Try it out for the discounted first month of meals and you will realize how simple it makes cooking a meal! The ingredients are sent to you premeasured and you just have to follow the simple instructions to put together a healthy, well balanced meal.

Keep little ones in their highchairs while you cook

Cooking with wild infants or toddlers roaming around can be a disaster. Not only is it dangerous when you have hot pans on the stove or in the oven, but it can also be distracting. It takes me double the time to prep and cook a meal when I’m watching our little maniacs run through the house.

While you’re cooking, keep your young children strapped in the high chair so you don’t have to worry about what they’re getting into. Give them a couple of fun activities to do (coloring, stacking blocks, stickers, books) to keep them busy while they wait for their meals.

Prepare during nap time, quiet time, or independent time

Luckily, my 2 year old still takes a 3 hour nap in the middle of the day so that is my prime time to get dinner started. I can prep all my ingredients (peel, cut, mix, and measure), but leave the cooking for when we are closer to dinner time. This drastically decreases the time spent preparing dinner once my husband gets home.

If your kids no longer nap or have quiet time or you’re still working, Crock pots are always the way to go. Set it early in the day or before you leave for work so that prep is done! When you’re ready for dinner, you just need to add a few last minute touches and dinner is served!

Get the kids involved

If your children are old enough to help out, let them! They’ll feel so much more involved if you let them take part in the meal planning or prepping. It may even lead to less of a struggle if your child feels a sense of independence from planning the meal.

Whether it’s brainstorming meal options for the week, writing out the grocery list, measuring ingredients, or sprinkling in the spices, your little ones will love the sense of autonomy it gives them.

This Kitchen Helper Stand is so great for letting your little one help in the kitchen. Since standing on a chair is very unsafe for a toddler, this stand allows them to be at counter height without you worrying about them falling off.

Take back mealtime so your babies and toddlers can have a nice experience eating with their family. Follow these tips to enjoy dinner time again.

Eating

Offer them only what you are eating

If you have a picky eater or a younger toddler, you may find yourself constantly offering them everything but the kitchen sink. Do you want bananas? berries? toast? chicken? pasta? peas? just in an attempt to get them to eat.

Expanding your child’s palate to the wide variety of meals that adults eat will drastically reduce your stress during mealtime. You won’t have to worry about offering them a bunch of different items, making meal time so chaotic.

Have everything ready on the counter

If you still have a baby or young toddler who eats separate food items, keep all of their foods on the counter or table before you start mealtime. This will minimize the amount of time it takes to continuously bring out different foods.

I felt like we were getting up constantly to bring more things for my baby to eat. Once we started having everything out on the table, it made mealtime so much simpler and less hectic.

Allow your little ones to feed themselves

One of the biggest time wasters and struggles at family dinner is spoon feeding. We started a baby led weaning approach to feeding our baby from when he was 6 months old and it was the best choice we could have made.

This led to the ability to be more hands off during mealtimes with our baby. He was able to eat with his hands independently as soon as he started solids.

Although most toddlers should be able to feed themselves, some parents still tend to spoon feed them (my husband can be guilty of this). However, giving your baby independence frees you up a little to enjoy your meal.

Keep your child close to the table

Your child may be getting frustrated in a high chair if you have pushed him off to the side where he doesn’t feel like a part of the family. If they’re old enough, ditch the tray and push the high chair under the table, or opt for a seat that straps right onto an adult chair for easy seating.

Don’t force little ones to eat

If your child is refusing to eat, DO NOT FORCE THEM. This can cause food aversions and eating issues in the future, as well as making dinner time super hectic. Continue to offer the foods that they may not like, but don’t force them.

The power struggle surrounding eating is so tough for many parents, but why make it so hard on yourself? If your child is hungry, they will eat. Of course, consult your physician if you think there are serious nutritional issues. However, most of the time, toddlers diets are not as healthy as we would like them to be, and that is ok!

Babies get most of their nutritional needs from breastmilk or formula before one, so don’t worry too much if they’re refusing certain foods at this point either.

Timing

Having dinner time as a family can be tough during the week. Our kids get in bed by 7 and my husband gets home at 6.

It seems like the evening is so rushed after work that it’s hard to sit down and eat all together. However, when this is our main goal, we make it work.

I try to make sure dinner is ready soon after my husband gets home. This way, it doesn’t push back their bedtime and we can all sit and eat together.

Also, a family meal doesn’t have to just be dinner. If breakfast or lunch works for you because your schedules aren’t 9-5, that’s ok. If you only get 1 or 2 family meals together during the weekend then that’s fine too. Whatever works for your family is going to be the new routine.

Use games and songs

My husband is great at finding some kind of silly song and dance to do to get my toddler to eat. “I’ll sing the ABC song if you take one more bite.”

I don’t always like this because it is just going to create a habit where they think that they will always get some kind of reward for eating. Mealtime should not be like that, however I understand when it’s necessary.

We can’t expect young toddlers to understand how to behave at the dinner table so sometimes this is a good way to get them to sit still. Give your child an opportunity to have a little fun during mealtime and come with your own songs to sing or pick their favorites.

Keep them strapped in while you eat

As my daughter was approaching 2, we realized she no longer needed the high chair because she could reach the table and could feed herself well. We moved her into a regular adult seat, but that was a mistake.

She fit in it well and had no problem eating from a regular chair. However, she took it as free reign to walk around while she ate, climb onto the table, and jump up and down on the chair.

We realized that we needed a transition chair after the highchair and before the regular seat. I used the Chicco Pocket Snack Booster seat that was a great choice for mealtime.

The Pocket Snack keeps your toddler in their seat but doesn’t make them feel like a baby in a high chair. Simply strap it to one of your chairs and it has buckles to keep your toddler seated.

Use positive reinforcements

If your child is old enough to understand rewards and consequences (around 2), make a positive behavior chart for dinnertime. If they behave well and eat, they get a sticker or a prize. Hang the chart up by the dinner table so they have reminders to behave.

Use technology

Some parents are strongly against technology at the dinner table (or at all), but if you want a stress-free meal, I’m all about using all of your resources! Don’t feel guilty for letting your child be exposed to technology if it means less stress for you and your spouse.

If your child will remain seated and content with her favorite tv show in the background, do that. If they love hearing songs played through Amazon Alexa, do it. My daughter always asks Alexa to play Baby Shark and Wheels on the Bus during dinner and it keeps her happy, content, and eating.

Cleaning and Reducing Mess

Clean as you cook

Oh, the dreaded cleanup! It’s enough to make me want to order take-out every night. I tell my husband that I don’t mind cooking, but the cleaning after a big meal just drives me crazy.

I especially hate that we finish dinner, put the kids to bed, and then come downstairs to a kitchen disaster that needs to be cleaned up for the next 30 minutes.

Try to take care of the mess and cooking area as much as possible during prep. This way, after the kids are asleep, you won’t be cleaning for hours!

Use disposables

I know disposables are not good for the environment, but if it’s good for my sanity, it works for me.

We use paper plates all the time which drastically reduces clean up time. Plastic cups, utensils, and napkins that are disposable make clean up much easier.

Practical bibs for babies and toddlers – “Pibs”

Of course everyone knows to use a bib on your baby at meal time. However, sometimes those bibs are not very practical or even functional. Sure, they cover most of the front of your baby’s shirt, but other than that, they can still leave quite a mess.

I used to hate that I would have to take off my daughters shirt for meal time, only to get her pants destroyed from everything that fell in her lap. Even the bibs with pouches didn’t cover everything.

One of the neatest inventions I’ve come across is the PIB Bib. It covers almost every inch of your baby or toddlers body to keep them super clean. No more finding food underneath your baby’s bottom or in the creases of their pants. try the Pib Bib and you won’t regret it!

Use a drop mat

The area under and around our high chair is always an absolute disaster. Both of my kids loved to throw food when they didn’t want it anymore or even just for fun to watch it drop.

Since I don’t have a dog to lick it up, I’m always stuck scrubbing the walls and floors after every meal. If you have a thrower, putting a plastic drop mat under the high chair may help to reduce the mess.

Just simply move the highchair when they’re finished and shake out the plastic mat. This way, your floors will stay sparkling clean.

Give chores to the kids

Toddlers can definitely help out with clean up after dinner. Give them a simple responsibility such as bringing their bowl to the sink, throwing their napkin in the garbage, or wiping down the table. They will love the sense of independence that it gives them and that’s one less thing for you to do!

Hi I’m Marissa!

A mom of two little ones, here to provide some relatable experiences, tips, and tricks to the joys and challenges of pregnancy and childbirth through raising babies and toddlers.  Read more about me here.