Changing Family Dinner Expectations: As a Pediatric Dietitian, I Often Want To Do Away With Family Dinner

By Amanda Gordon, MS, RDN, LDN, IBCLC and Nia Batmunkh, Dietetic Intern

Changing family dinner expectations can be important for parents struggling with dinner.

As a pediatric dietitian, I talk with many families about what dinner looks like in their homes.  After countless conversations with exasperated and frustrated parents of toddlers and school-age children, I am worried that as parents and caregivers, we are setting ourselves up to fail here.

Family dinner expectations

As parents, we have high hopes and possibly unrealistic expectations of what dinner time should look like. Maybe the idyllic 1950’s style with young children sitting quietly at the table, using good manners, and waiting to be served?  Then when the piping hot, home-cooked meal comes out of the oven, children will eagerly eat all of the home-cooked food, nourishing their bellies and finishing off all of their vegetables.  

I work with families all day long, every day, and believe me, this is not the reality in most homes. In fact, it is quite the opposite and parents report their own disappointment and feelings of defeat when this is not the case. 

As a parent myself, I too have to fight off these feelings, almost nightly.  Dinner does not look like this in my house either.  When we set our expectations too high, we are likely to feel defeated at dinner time

In order to adjust our expectations, it helps to think about where trouble starts at the table.

What causes trouble at the table? 

It is important to learn the average attention span of children by their age and to keep this in mind as you set expectations for dinner and what dinner time will look like. 

This may surprise you, but the average attention span of a two-year-old is four to six minutes and a four-year-old’s is eight to twelve minutes!  Asking children to sit for a long period of time at the end of the day can be a recipe for disaster.

It is also important to think about children and self-regulation.  Even the most well-behaved toddler may be dysregulated by dinner time.  In other words, children may have trouble managing their emotional responses to the environment around them by the end of today.

If I am being completely honest, the end of dinner in my house often ends in a wrestling match in the basement.  I attribute this to my children’s need to unwind and let go when I have asked them to sit and behave at the table after they have been asked to do this all day at school.  I think it is their way of telling me, Mom that was a lot that you just asked me to dosit still, participate in conversation, engage when I am tired, and try new foods.  

And you know what? Kids aren’t the only tired ones.

Parents are tired and not at their best

It is not just kids who are tired by dinnertime, it’s parents and caregivers as well.  Whether in or outside of the home, parents have been working, caring for children, driving to and from activities all day, and are just as tired as their kids. 

When we are tired, we are more likely to get frustrated and let things bother us that we might not have earlier in the day, before we’ve used up our patience. 

If we can’t do away with family dinner, what can we do?

In truth, we can’t do away with dinner.  It would be nice, but in reality, we do need to nourish ourselves and our families.  So, what are some strategies we can use?

Give the little kids a head start

Bringing younger children to the table first before the whole family sits down gives them a “head start” to dinner.  They can calmly eat for a few minutes before the chaos ensues.  Some children do better with this head start.  

Model expectations

Model behaviors and manage expectations. If you are serving family-style at dinner, allow everyone to serve themselves as possible, but don’t expect everyone to eat everything.  Model the behavior you would like to see your kids use around food.

  • If dinners are challenging, they are not the only time to eat as a family.  With more flexible work schedules and parents working from home more, there may be another time of the day that could work to eat meals together.  I sometimes recommend weekend brunches or lunches as a time for the family to gather routinely for a meal.  


  • Set realistic expectations. Remember, it does not need to be dinner every night either, maybe it is to set a goal of eating as a family two nights per week.  


  • Accept small victories.  Family dinner may only last 15 minutes.  That’s ok.  Maybe the kids at the table tried at least a bite of new food or watched the adults at the table eat and enjoy something at least.  These are all great wins!

Key takeaways: doing away with family dinners

While we can’t always do away with dinner, sometimes adjusting our expectations, understanding where children are at emotionally, and being realistic can make family dinner less challenging.   

If mealtimes are challenging for your family and you are looking for more support, request an appointment here.  Feed to Succeed is in-network with many insurance companies and we are offering telehealth now, in addition to office appointments!