5 Ways to Conquer Mealtime Chaos

Struggling with mealtime chaos with the kids? Learn how to make dinner less hectic with these tips and enjoy your meals once again.

Mealtime ChaosAs much as I love family dinners, they don’t always go as smoothly as I hope.

First, there’s the mess. Food is thrown on the floor, utensils ends up everywhere but the table, and cups are spilled. Somehow, my once-clean dining table gets covered with sticky goo from who knows where.

Then there’s the kids being silly instead of eating. Here I am hoping to talk about their homework and instead hear silly words galore. I’m all for laughing and playing, but not always when the food ends up uneaten.

And finally, the food battles. They don’t want to eat what I just spent an hour preparing. Or I’m constantly telling them “no” (seriously, why do kids insist on stabbing dining tables with utensils?!). Sometimes they’re so adamant about not eating that at least one of us leaves the table upset.

With three rambunctious boys eating dinner together every night, I’ve had to learn how to conquer mealtime chaos. To make these mishaps the exception, not the norm. Where we can enjoy dinner, take it in stride, and encourage everyone to eat their meals. Here’s what’s worked for me:

1. Watch your reaction when accidents happen

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It’s easy to get angry when kids make messy spills, from flinging spaghetti on the floor to knocking down a cup of juice.

But, I found that my reaction made the situation worse. I’d often get so upset, huffing and puffing while scrubbing the floor, that I’d forget this is common, especially for small kids. That even I make these same messes—but no one gets down on me for it.

Now, instead of getting upset, I pause and focus on what needs to be done right away. I’ve taught my kids not to fear my reaction and instead jump to actionable steps they can take. They know to fetch a rag for spills and toss food from the floor into the trash.

I’ve also learned that many of these accidents can be prevented.

For instance, a splat mat (or even an office chair mat) is a fantastic way to keep high chair messes off the floor. I’ve also begun to align their cups well away from their plates, reducing the chance of accidentally getting knocked over.

By preventing common messes and teaching my kids to be self-sufficient and clean up after themselves, we avoid much of the chaos.

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2. Negotiate how many bites to eat

I admit it: I’m one of those moms who tells her kids, “Just take five bites and we’re good.”

I’ve come to realize that one of my dinnertime triggers is when I’ve spent a long time cooking a meal—and one I know tastes really good—and my kids refuse to eat it. They want to skip ahead to the fruit we usually have with dinner or just stop altogether.

But I’ve also learned two things. First, having a showdown about meals is not a good way to paint a positive picture of eating. And second, my kids may be adamant about not finishing the entire meal, but they’re pretty willing to take a few bites.

So, we negotiate.

I tell them to take just five more bites, and then they can have their fruit or leave the table. I don’t want to force them to eat beyond their preferences or how much their bodies can take. But I also know how important it is for kids to at least try food before saying they don’t like it.

And what happens if they say they’re hungry after fruit? I point to the rest of the food they didn’t eat so they know that’s their only other option at that point.

3. Hold real conversations

Mealtime chaos is expected when we’re reactive. We’re on standby, waiting to diffuse the next outburst or clean up the inevitable mess. But what if you set aside crisis control and instead focus on holding real conversations with your kids?

Now, if you have a baby or a toddler, talking to them can feel silly, as if you’re just talking to yourself. But keep in mind that this is a fantastic way to introduce new words and get in the habit of talking to them as you would anyone else. According to Erica Patino on Understood:

“Family dinners can help build your child’s vocabulary and boost his self-esteem.”

Talking to older kids shows respect—that you truly care about sharing your thoughts or learning more about theirs.

Ban electronics at the table and instead ask open-ended questions that encourage conversations. You might ask about a good thing that happened in school today, or what they’re excited about for the weekend. Ask their opinions about their interests, whether it’s the latest toys or the newest movie.

Focus less on getting food in their mouths and more on using dinnertime as a way to reconnect after a long day.

4. Eat with your kids

Some parents put off their own dinners until after the kids are in bed. With so much attention on the kids, it can be hard to enjoy eating your dinner (at least while it’s still hot).

The trouble is, you miss an opportunity to model how to eat and enjoy a meal when you’re in the kitchen preparing ingredients or at the table breaking up fights. How can you make this easier and more doable?

It helps to have everything prepared before you gather at the table. If your three-year-old still needs his chicken diced, do that beforehand so that they’re already in small pieces by the time you place his plate in front of him. Pour everyone’s water, slice the fruit, and serve everyone’s meals on their plates ahead of time.

Then, encourage independent eating among your kids. Yes, it might be rough at first, but the more they can feed themselves, the less you have to do it for them. This might mean teaching the baby how to use her hands or spoon, showing your kids how to pour their water, or teaching the big ones how to slice their food.

An added benefit of eating with your kids instead of after they’re in bed? You save time for yourself. Now you can eat with them at dinner time and enjoy your evenings as you please.

5. Forget perfection—do what works

I like to say, “It is what it is,” especially when it comes to family meals. We won’t always get things perfect, and we shouldn’t even bother trying to. Instead, do whatever works in the moment. No one is judging you for the choices you make.

Did you just realize that you don’t have a recipe for tonight’s dinner? Bring out the frozen leftovers. Do you have one hour between school pick-up and swim class? Order food on the way home and call it a pizza night. And it’s okay if they don’t eat all the veggies you cooked—I’m sure you have your preferences as well (and remember, five bites is enough!).


As expected as mealtime chaos can be in every household, it also doesn’t have to be the norm.

Watch how you react to accidents and mistakes at the table. Negotiate how many bites to eat to encourage your kids to at least try the food. Have conversations with open-ended questions. Eat with your kids instead of being stuck in the kitchen or eating after they’re in bed.

And successful mealtimes don’t mean they’re perfect. Sometimes, you have to do whatever works—even if that means looking the other way when they stab the table with utensils.

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