In an ideal world, Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner would be a warm, festive experience, where everyone remains sober, no one brings up old family feuds, and children sit with their napkins in their laps and chew with their mouths closed. I wish this kind of Normal Rockwell holiday upon everyone and everyone I know…but I am betting that if you’re like most of us, Aunt Jane will drink too much wine, your kids will last all of 10 minutes before someone has a meltdown or breaks heirloom crystal, and your little sister will accuse you of ruining her life. (Again.)
You can’t control how the adults behave, of course, but you do have more control than your probably realize over your kids’ behavior. Here’s my survival guide for holiday dinners, family events and other gatherings where your children will have to stay put for a long period time.
1. Manage expectations—yours and the hosts’
Can a 10-year-old sit quietly at the dinner table for more than an hour, cut with a knife and fork and even participate in discussions about current events and sports? Sure. Can a 10-month-old? No. Be realistic about how long your child is going to be expected to sit still, and make sure the hosts knows that your little one might need to go play quietly in the family room or perhaps even drag you or another family member away from the dinner to attend to him or her. You’ll get fewer, “Well, I never!” exclamations that way (from the elderly relatives who have selective amnesia about how difficult toddlers can be.)
2. Practice table etiquette.
As you get closer to Thanksgiving or another big gathering, make sure you give your kids feedback during daily family meals. Positive reinforcement is always more effective than criticism: “I like how you’re sitting so nicely and eating with your mouth closed! Can you also try cutting with your knife instead of just using your fork?” You don’t need to add, “Because Uncle Jesse will complain that I’m a bad mother who can’t even get her kids to eat properly if you don’t figure this out!” Any added pressure—behave for the extended family!—is bound to backfire. A few basic points to cover:
-Chew with your mouth closed
-Don’t interrupt people who are talking
-Say please and thank you
-Cut with a knife and fork when appropriate; don’t eat with your hands
-Help set or clear the table
-Say “excuse me for reaching” or ask for food to be passed rather than just grabbing it
-Wait for everyone to be served before digging in
-If you don’t like the food, politely ask for another option; never spit out the food or say the food tastes bad.
3. Give your kids a sneak-preview of holiday foods.
We’re not big consumers of foods like potatoes, stuffing and gravy in my family. While I look at these foods as a once-a-year-treat, my kids look at them as practically foreign. (Ah, the irony of having American children who are more comfortable eating sushi than Thanksgiving turkey!) I don’t think it’s a bad idea to do a little holiday meal “sampler” to prevent unwelcome exclamations of, “Eww! What is this?” or “Do you mean there’s no chicken nuggets?” Try making open-faced turkey sandwiches with your kids’ favorite bread, turkey and a healthy gravy option, like Road’s End Organic Gravy, which is vegan and fat-free, with a dollop of mashed potatoes on the side. And be sure to talk excitedly about the dishes you’re going to enjoy at Grandma’s house—if you’re enthusiastic, they will be, too.
4. Make sure your children are well-fed and well-rested.
True, there’s going to be plenty of food—but if they arrive at dinner with empty tanks, they might start the evening off in a bad mood. I’d recommend serving healthy, simple, clean snacks before the big event, so there won’t be as much room to gorge at the dessert table. If your child typically or even occasionally naps, I’d also recommend making sure they get some sleep before you head to the holiday dinner. A happy, well-rested child is much less likely to have a meltdown than a cranky one.
5. Be true to yourself.
The holidays can be a chaotic, stressful time. You might be around other people who tend to be critical of you, or perhaps relatives who behave in a way that you would not want your kids to emulate. Try not to let this pressure impact your parenting. Don’t give in to your kids more than you would otherwise to appease the mother-in-law who thinks you’re too strict, and don’t make a federal case out of your child talking with his mouth full if you normally wouldn’t get upset about this. No matter what kind of childhood you had—whether it was pleasant with a few minor conflicts or filled with dysfunction—remember that your children offer you the opportunity to create stability and comfort, and that starts with you.
Jorie Mark is Vitacost.com’s Director of Marketing Communications and mom to three kids, ages 3 to 10.