10 Ways to Get Kids to Help With Dinner

Nearly every parent I know bemoans the dinner hour -- they're tired, kids are cranky and needy, and it's difficult to keep everyone happy. What if I told you this could be the best time of your day, a time to really enjoy your family? Here are my top 10 tips for putting enjoyment and family harmony back into the dinner hour:

Find delicious meal ideas with plenty of stuff for the kids to do in the Menu Maker.

  1. Share responsibility for all aspects of the meal with your children. That means deciding what you'll eat a day in advance so there's time to shop and prep ingredients without getting frantic. It's best to do this right at the table while you are finishing up dinner. Make your grocery list then, and have kids help by checking the pantry to see what needs to go on the list.
  2. Do food shopping with your children to help your family get out of the rut of cooking the same dishes and branch into something new. So as not to overwhelm them, start by asking for meals for three days, having them select three different veggies, meats and starches. When it's their decision they tend to rise to the occasion and pick some new things.
  3. Have adolescents help after school by doing simple vegetable prep, grating cheese, starting soup and so on before you get home. At that age, feeling independent is increasingly important. Tap into that need by giving them some real, age-appropriate responsibility for the family meal that will put you several steps ahead when you arrive home. Even peeling potatoes while they listen to music or watch TV can appeal to kids this age.
  4. Little children can help under the supervision of the baby sitter as well. Small children can at least help with many kitchen tasks: measuring, grating, peeling, cracking eggs, patting rinsed greens and herbs dry with a cloth, measuring marinades and batters, stirring, tearing salad greens, plucking leaves off herbs ... the list goes on and on. Better yet, if an older child is home supervising a younger child, this will turn into a fabulous exercise in sibling cooperation.


  1. Teach your kids that if they're present and actually helping at dinner time they can have your attention, but they should not expect you to answer their calls at far ends of the house during this time -- you're available in the kitchen, period. It takes some time to reinforce this new notion, but when it kicks in, everyone is happier. There's less conflict and actually more relaxed discussion as kids trail you in the meal-making process, helping with such simple things as turning the faucet on and off for you or throwing garbage in the trash as they spill out their pressing problem or regale you with a litany of reasons why they can't stand their teacher that day.
  2. Distinguish to small helpers that a mess created out of sincere effort towards performing a cooking task will be lovingly dismissed while messes resulting from fooling around or disobedience will not be tolerated. Kids will not want to stay in the kitchen if every glop of food that drops results in your exasperated sigh or obvious annoyance. By contrast, when you start to giggle that the tomato seeds went flying, they'll be so shocked and relieved they'll jump to grab a sponge and help you clean it up.
  3. Ban clock-watching during cooking, using timers to keep different cooking tasks on track. The less time-obsessed the parent, the more enjoyment for everyone. It's not that it doesn't matter, it's just that everything works better (and faster) if the primary focus is on enjoying the process of making the family meal with everyone's help.
  4. Don't expect smiling trained seals who stand by your side for an hour each night in the kitchen. That is unrealistic, and some kids get bored quickly. The less of a big deal you make of inviting and encouraging their help and graciously thanking them for the smallest effort in participation, the better chance you have of building their help into a routine, albeit just for their favorite tasks or even just setting the table. Quality of interaction is more important that quantity.
  5. Create a designated dining area and place a tablecloth and cloth napkins (all washable) with designated places (so linens can get washed once a week) on it for use every night. Adding such a simple but ceremonial aspect to the dinner instills tremendous respect for the meal in children and a reverence for it that's been lost in most households because of the "expendability" of most mealtime aspects. When kids see you value the meal, it will rub off on them, particularly if you make it clear that this is time they can really have your full attention and talk about things that are important to them.
  6. Turn off the television! If you've done all or most of the above and still keep the tube on when you're sitting down together, you might as well all be in different rooms. The TV is a big distraction when you want family conversation and interaction. If favorite shows can't be missed, change the dinner time or tape the shows.

Find delicious meal ideas with plenty of stuff for the kids to do in the Menu Maker.

Lynn Fredericks is the author of Cooking Time is Family Time (William Morrow Inc., 1999).

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