🥗 The Family Dinner Table: Our Approach
Dinner time questions we ask our kids, games that pass the time, and our family dinner rules.
Few things represent the duality of parenting more than the family dinner table: it’s both a ritual of connection where we give undivided attention to each other and a source of parental anxiety of misplaced expectations and boredom management.
Like a lot of parenting, for us, the dinner table started transactional and involved managing a sense of loss aversion - newborns can’t talk, so it was about salvaging as much pre-kid normality while spoon feeding mush, wiping up stains, and dodging edible projectiles. I still cringe when I think of the floor underneath the table at some of our first nights out as a family.
Once the kids were out of the highchair stage, though, family dinners transformed. They became precious as one of the few moments of the day when we are all together and the ritual gave the kids an expectation of focus. This brings a chance to both teach and to be curious about our kids’ days.
“Giving someone your undivided attention is one of the most generous things you can do.” - Unknown
How does a family get better at managing the dinner table than the minbar of asking “How was your day?” and throwing up an iPhone when the kids get bored before you are done with your meal? In many ways, it’s a microcosm of any family’s larger parenting strategy - you can learn a lot about a family by the way they manage the family dinner table. So, here’s our approach - far from perfect, but reflective of some of our deepest held parenting beliefs.
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Bonus content: Check out one of our most popular posts: Burnout & Boredom: A Manager’s Pandemic Retrospective on Mental Health
Our Biggest Dinner Table Rules
Weekend mornings, long car rides, airplanes - our family has plenty of screen-time-allowed rituals. The dinner table is not one of them, including when we eat out at restaurants. Zero judgement to any family that does allow them - it enables an easy meal in peace for the adults. We just decided to spend the screens-as-relief-valve chips elsewhere.
You are excused when you are done
Our compensation for the no-screen mantra is that we allow our kids to leave the table when they are done with their meal. At home, this means a return to play and it enables adults to finish the meal on their own time. At restaurants, this is more nuanced - but it does often mean kids can get up to explore outside or otherwise wander in a way that doesn’t bother others or get in the way of servers.
We put things on your plate; you decide what to eat
We have one picky eater and one who eats anything. This means we’ve had stressful battles with food but also have the existential perspective that frankly little of our intentional efforts seem to actually matter. Kids will eat what they want. Our approach to providing some structure is that at home, we add food to our kids’ plates - they can decide whether or not to eat it. We encourage the “No, thank you” bites - although are hard pressed to name the food they love that came from them.
Our Favorite Games
One of the top stressors of a dinner out is filling the time until the food comes. While we believe in general that parents are not there to cure our kids’ boredom, we perhaps compromise this principle at restaurants. So we play games together as we wait for food. Mostly this is pleasant time spent in play, but where possible it’s a great chance for kids to practice having opinions, being imaginative, and having an attention to detail. If you too are looking for a few ideas to pass the time, try these:
This is the crowd favorite for sure. One person closes their eyes and everyone else moves one thing on the table. A fork goes askew. A drink cup gets flipped with the table tent. Then the guessing begins!
What’s your top five…?
Our kids have trouble picking one favorite, but they often love to geek out on stack ranking a set of favorites. Restaurants, theme parks, colors, stuffies, vacation destinations - we pick fun things that bring joy. Pausing and asking “Why?” is key to extending playing time.
Would you rather?
“Would you rather fly, or would you rather be able to teleport?” and other forms of imaginative this vs. that is a good way of enabling kids to form opinions. This is a great chance for us to validate our kids’ thought processes.
Honorable mentions: Hangman & Telephone are two solid favorites with our kids as well. Thank God we’ve graduated from Tic Tac Toe, though. Too many cat’s games for my lifetime.
Our Favorite Questions
“How was your day?” gets a bad rap because it’s not specific - it doesn’t inspire creative thought or show curiosity. We’ve had luck with these questions instead:
What’s something that surprised you today?
This is a good intro question, even for younger kids, which tends to force an answer better than “My day was good.”
What made you smile today?
This question hasn’t been successful with our 6-year-old, but it’s been a gem of insights from our 9- year-old that helps remind her of good things that happened. We’ve learned a lot about friends we didn’t even know she had from this question.
What’s something cool that you learned today?
This question gets better over time when kids see how you react to their answers. I’ve noticed that the more curiosity and attention you show to the response, the more interesting the next day’s answer will be.
Honorable mentions: I asked on Threads (follow me under aharmetz) what are some good dinner table questions and here’s a few I got: “What was one kind thing you did today?” and “How did you make someone’s day today?”
Wrapping Up: Keep It Fresh
New places, new games, new questions - those are even more important than just our favorites. It keeps the dinner from getting into a rut and maintains the ritual. So share out your favorite questions and dinner-table games with us!
Bonus: More of our parenting posts:
👶 Advice on Hiring a Nanny: Practical tips for working parents (Helen and Adam)
🐎 Seven pieces of advice for parents returning to the "office" after parental leave: How to adjust back to work life (Helen)
✈️ Work Travel and Mom Guilt (Helen)