ON THE RECORD: Parenting at Dinner Time: From Chaos to Calm

By Daniella Guzman

parentingAs we start a new year, we often think about what we can do better and differently. At the top of my list is my chaotic, loud and frustrating dinner time with a toddler and a baby. It often includes meltdowns, whining, getting up and down hundreds of times and me repeating the lyrics to the hit song, “Sit Down and Eat.” My husband and I are on a mission to make dinner time more calm, efficient and enjoyable.

Dinner can be a difficult time because we’re usually finishing homework, clearing out backpacks, planning the next day’s schedule and trying to capture the day at school, which often causes us to rush. A well-structured routine helps the kids know what to expect and can be more manageable for my husband and me.

Preparing dinner throughout the day or in advance has helped me with the workload. Before I head out to work at 1:30 a.m., I pull something out of the freezer to thaw. After lunch, I start chopping and marinating. I basically have everything ready to go so all I have to do is assemble and cook dinner. Lots of my friends use their slow cookers.

Finding an activity for the kids to do while I cook is something I’m still trying to perfect. Usually, my 1-year-old, Olivia, wants all my attention. She clings to me and cries until I pick her up while my 5-year-old, Sofia, is jumping on the sofa, also asking for attention. I often keep Sofia busy by suggesting she color or play in the backyard, but baby Olivia and I struggle to balance cooking with giving her the attention she desires. Sometimes Sofia helps and plays with Olivia while I get dinner on the table.

Getting everyone to the table once dinner is served is just as challenging. I’m considering using the old-fashioned dinner bell. The idea of everyone dropping what they’re doing and running to the table with a little ring sounds fun, and each family member can take turns ringing the bell.

Clearing the kitchen of toys, books and anything that can be distracting during dinner has made a huge difference at my house. We play relaxing music and stick to our “no toys or electronics at the dinner table” rule. This goes for parents, too.

Another strategy to speed things up: setting an alarm to help with boundaries. My husband and I used to spend more than an hour begging our toddler to sit and eat while she stalls by getting up from her chair and running around to “show us something.” We now set a one-hour time frame to finish dinner as a family. Those not finished with dinner on time have their leftover dinner for breakfast. Though it may seem harsh, it influenced Sofia a great deal because she really likes breakfast food. I also try to minimize chaos by making dinner time as predictable as possible. I repeat expectations such as, “Dinner will be ready in 5 minutes, start making your way to the table please,” and, “We are all going to sit down and not get up until we are done eating,” out loud. I give my children a friendly 15-minute advance notice so everyone knows dinner is about to wrap up.

What works for my family may not work for everyone, but there’s no doubt that it’s worth finding ways to make dinner enjoyable for everyone.

I’d like to hear what your family’s dinner routine looks like. What works well for you and your kids? Let me know your thoughts on social media @DaniellaNBCLA

Daniella Guzman is the anchor on NBC4 Southern California’s “Today in LA” weekday morning newscast, 4:30-7 a.m. A mother of two, Daniella’s column, On the Record, brings her views on parenting, fun family activities and her take on work-life balance. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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