Family Dinner Table Rules – Tips for a Peaceful Meal

dinner table place setting

Josie Ortega searches for the serious and silly rules that build a healthy family dinner culture. Read on to learn how to establish an enjoyable, peaceful mealtime with your loved ones.

Our Dinner Situation

My kids are no longer super small, no one in diapers. Still, somehow, it remains remarkable and surprising that I need to feed them over and over again. Every day. Must be one of those relentless parenting deals, so I figure we need to do two things:

  1. Find a way to get better at this particular task, moving mealtime as far as possible along the spectrum away from painful, toward, dare I say, enjoyable.
  2. Equip the kids to do it themselves! Starting with helping out, ending with: they’re cooking for me and bringing me bonbons as I recline on the sofa.

Much has been said and written about The Table—it’s a beautiful image, a metaphor, a synecdoche. . . remember that word from English class? It’s an expression in which a part of something represents the whole. The table—“breaking bread together”—represents our whole communal life together. The Family Table carries a huge emotional weight; and at the same time, it also represents the repetitive, nitty gritty chores and crumbs that make up our hours and days.

House Rules

As we gather for regular daily meals, as well as important celebrations and life-altering conversations (no pressure), a culture develops around the Family Dinner Table. Here are some rules that my daughters recently codified:

list of dinner table rules at the Ortega house

  • ¡Respeta la mesa! Translation: Respect the table. I don’t know if this is a common saying in Spanish; I think my husband just came out with it one day. But I really like the way it conveys that the table is a special place to gather together, and each of us needs to behave in a way that respects and values the other humans sharing the table with us. Therefore:
  • No phones at the table. GOTCHA. Sorry, parents, but we’ve got to be the ones who set the tone, who model that respect for the other humans sitting around the table. It’s so hard because I’m addicted to my technology. But, since it’s a plainly stated rule, you better believe that the kids hold us to it. It might help me to find an attractive bowl or basket where the phones take their break during meals . . . I’m motivated by trinkets and housewares, so sue me.
  • Napkin in your lap.
  • No elbows on the table.

Mind Your Manners

We don’t enforce the napkin and elbow rules at our house at this time; it’s interesting that the girls even included them on their sign. I’m sure the reason is because I’ve told the kids about some of the memorable manners chants we had growing up:

“Jack, Jack, don’t be a sap. Put your napkin in your lap.”

“Jack, Jack, strong and able, get your elbows off the table.”

Although those two specific directives aren’t the most important behaviors in the world, they remind me that the table is where we’re trained in manners. If that word feels too stuffy, replace manners with “being considerate of others.” Things like chewing with your mouth closed, asking nicely for someone to pass the potatoes, waiting until everyone is served before eating, carrying on a friendly conversation, not interrupting, using an inside voice . . . I hope my kids learn all that good stuff, and internalize the idea that sharing a meal bonds us together.

More Dinner Table Rules

In the meantime, we continue to focus on enforcing this next rule:

  • NFOT (No Feet On Table). It’s just common courtesy, as well as an issue of hygiene.
  • Te calmas, o te calmo. Translation: Calm yourself down, or I will calm you down. This is a tongue-in-cheek take on funny threats a Mexican mama makes. Nonetheless, it’s a good one. Conceptually, it hearkens to the aforementioned respect of one another and the time we share together. In practice, it’s no yelling or tantrums at the table. You’ll be forcibly removed.
  • You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit! This comes in handy for distributing a variety of popsicle flavors in the summertime, while children yell their demands and fling themselves on the ground.

You can see from their signage what my kids felt obliged to include. The last one re: fit-throwing and what’s on the menu, begs the question: what are the rules for making kids eat?

dinner table kids

Are you in the clean plate club?

The “clean plate club” of my generation and older seeks to prevent food waste and to promote gratitude. In recent years, the pendulum has swung the other way in an effort to prevent traumatic force-feeding experiences and unhealthy relationships with food.

When my kids started on solid foods, I appreciated a laid-back baby-led weaning approach. (“Food before one is just for fun!”)

A helpful rule of thumb (here’s the source), especially for parents of toddlers and older babies eating solids, is this:

  • Parents decide when, where, and what we’re eating.
  • Kids decide if and how much.

The idea is to remove the power struggle from the table. Ain’t nobody got time or energy for that. Toddlers, in particular, are notorious for eating two full-grown-man-size portions of pasta, or an entire watermelon, at one meal—and one bite of yogurt at the next. Don’t fret. It may help to think about their nutritional needs over the course of a week, rather than over the course of one meal. (Obviously, I’m not a doctor.)

We generally go with the above idea, with a tweak we call the One Bite Rule. We ask the kids to eat one bite of each food item at a meal. If someone’s cooked for you, it’s only kind to taste each dish.

As far as food waste goes: try to start with small portions and go from there.

Compliments to the Chef

I give huge props to my husband for getting our kids into the habit of thanking the chef when they’re done with each meal. If things go perfectly (LOL), they ask to be excused; say, “Thank you for cooking, Mama;” and carry in their plates to the kitchen counter.

Everyone Helps with Dinner

Along with carrying in their dirty dishes, we’re trying to regularly include the kids in setting the table and cleaning up. Believe me, I know most of the time it’s easier just to do it myself . . . but I feel like it’s starting to pay off. They’re becoming more and more competent. (I mean, not the three-year-old. He’s the one behind the NFOT rule, so. Don’t be greedy.)

I can’t wait for the day to let the kids be fully responsible for the dinner dishes. And then also the cooking! (And the laundry, etc. You get it.)

macaroni and cheese dinner little hands

Dinner Conversation

During some seasons, we’ve developed the habit of asking a question toward the end of dinner. (This book is fun!) The answers are interesting in themselves, and the discussion also serves as good practice for increasing seat time and attention span, taking turns, and speaking and listening to everyone at the table.

Family Dinner Success

So that’s it. That’s all you need for Family Dinner Success! Haha. Ha.

Please remember: the woman writing this post is the very same woman who days ago re-resolved to enforce the post-meal carrying-dishes-into-the-kitchen-counter rule, in a positive constructive manner, with her three-year-old son. He made it nearly there, carrying the half-full cereal bowl with Two Strong Hands. Stopped. Looked me in the eye. Dropped his bowl in the middle of the kitchen floor, onto a natural fiber rug.

Did you see it coming? There’s no use crying over spilled milk.

Keep doing what you’re doing, parents.

What are your Family Dinner Table Rules? Talk to your friends about them via FamilyApp and leave a comment with more ideas!

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