Tips on Surviving your Big Family Meal with Little Ones

‘Tis the season that is really overstimulating for kids: candy and treats, parties, travel, and gifts are all exciting, and it can all be overwhelming for small children. It’s difficult to predict when your child’s overstimulation will result in a meltdown, and I’m sure parents all over the country are silently praying that it won’t happen at the big holiday dinner. Here are a few tips to help decrease the odds:


  • Keep your child on his or her regular schedule on the day of the big gathering. This may be difficult with holiday errands and visitors, but try to keep the main events on schedule, like naptime and meal times.
  • Tell your child what to expect. Don’t assume that they remember last year’s gathering. Explain where the gathering will be, who will be there, and what you will do once you get there. Do this more than once, and answer your child’s questions as they come up.
  • Choose a family-friendly home or restaurant. Things will go much more smoothly for everyone if you choose a restaurant where the staff is trained to accommodate children, or the house you’re meeting at is already childproofed.
English: Child eating a veggie burger at a fas...
English: Child eating a veggie burger at a fast food restaurant. Français : Un enfant en train de manger un burger végétarien dans un fast-food. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
  • Have realistic expectations of your child’s behavior. The younger your child is, the earlier they will tire in the evening. Younger children also have shorter attention spans, so expect to see signs of boredom if there’s nothing but adult conversation going on.
  • Discuss your expectations of their behavior before the event. Explain to your children that you expect them to stay seated and use an indoor voice. Teach them an acceptable way to interrupt adults talking if they need something, such as raising their hand or saying “excuse me”. Rehearse this with them at your family table.
  • Pack some table-friendly activities if you’re eating at a restaurant. While restaurants spare you the cooking, they require children to wait for the meal to be served, and waiting is probably not their favorite activity. Bring along some coloring books and crayons or a small container of Legos or Ponies.
  • Don’t let your child get too hungry. Hungry children quickly get cranky, so bring along snacks like crackers, cheese sticks, or fresh fruit. Don’t pack sugary treats, because the post-sugar-rush crash can be ugly.
  • Let your child wear something comfortable. Once you cute some cute photos in the smocked dresses and bowties, let your children change into some play clothes for the rest of the event.
  • Plan for your child’s needs. If your child needs a high chair, plan ahead. Call the restaurant ahead of time to let them know, or let the hostess know you’ll be bringing one. If your child has special dietary needs, let the hostess know or ask the restaurant ahead of time what the menu choices are so you have time to think through what your child should eat.
  • Consider hiring a sitter to help with the children during the event. This sounds like a luxury item, but children will enjoy having someone to play with and you’ll enjoy having an extra set of hands. Check out sites like Sittercity or if you’ll be in an unfamiliar area.
  • Most tweens can handle sitting at a kids table. This makes the meal more fun for kids and adults if space is available.
  • Pay attention to signs that your child is becoming overtired. Children who rub their eyes, yawn, start to put their heads down on tables, or become fussy are becoming tired. If you’re in a private home, let the kids be excused from the table If you’re in a restaurant, it’s time to start wrapping things up.
  • If your child displays unacceptable behavior, quietly stand up and take your child from the table to someplace quiet. If your child is upset, sit next to them and let them calm down. Once your child is calm, explain to her that the behavior she was engaging in was not acceptable. Discuss what she can do instead (you may not throw things, but you may color in your coloring book). Do not attempt to discipline your child at the table in front of everyone. When you return to the table have the child sit next to you (if she wasn’t before), until you know she’s gotten the message.
  • Know when it’s time to leave. Don’t keep children out too late, especially if it’s a school night or if they displayed challenging behavior during the meal. If it’s been a smooth experience, quitting while you’re ahead is never a bad idea.


Do you have any other tips or ideas?  Let me know down below in the comments!

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