14 ways to survive the big family meal with your kids

Whenever there’s a big family get-together, it’s exciting and it can all be overwhelming for small children. It’s difficult to predict where your child’s over-stimulation will result in a meltdown, and parents all over the country silently pray that it won’t happen at the big holiday dinner. Here’s a few tips to help decrease the odds:

  1. Keep your child on his regular schedule the day of the gathering. This can be difficult with errands and visitors, but try to keep the main events on schedule, like nap time and meal times.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 not their favorite activity. Bring along some coloring books and crayons or a small container of Legos or Ponies.
  7. 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.
  8. Let your child wear something comfortable. Once you cute some cute photos in the smocked dresses and bow-ties, let your children change into some play clothes for the rest of the event.
  9. 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.
  10. 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 Care.com if you’ll be in an unfamiliar area.
  11. Most tweens can handle sitting at a kids table. This makes the meal more fun for kids and adults if space is available.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
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