If your family is anything like mine, getting the kids to sit down for a multi-course meal on any day of the week is a Herculean task. But on Thanksgiving, the kids are in the spotlight and the out-of-town relatives are hoping to get lots of face time with their long-lost cutie-pies. As proud parents, we hope our kids will make a good impression: sit nicely, make appropriate conversation, and use good table manners. But we also worry that they’ll be running laps around the table, finding any excuse to say the word “fart,” and dropping their cranberry sauce into their water to see it turn pink.
Here are some of the best tips I’ve collected over the years for getting through the long meal with your patience, your pride, and your parenting skills intact.
1. Respect your kids’ schedules
Thanksgiving is almost always an off-schedule kind of day. Dinner is often called for late afternoon, and (at least in my house) the adults are accustomed to skipping lunch in preparation for the big meal ahead. In spite of this, your kids still need to eat and nap at their normal intervals in order for them to be at their best.
2. Plan together
Once your kids are old enough to understand what you’re saying, a quick advance conversation about what you’re expecting from them will go a long way. Ask your kids if there’s anything you can do/bring for them that will help them to have a good time. Go over the planned menu and make sure they have good options. Work together to plan a successful day.
3. Gear up
If you are visiting relatives for Thanksgiving, make sure you bring your most essential feeding supplies. If your child is sitting in a high chair, call the host in advance to discuss your options. Clamp-on chairs like the phil&teds Lobster are very portable but don’t fit every kind of table. We always sell a lot of Stokke Tripp Trapp chairs this time of year, because they’re a great investment for anyone who will be hosting children on a regular basis.
If your baby likes to throw plates onto the floor, bring along a set of melamine dishes and spare your Aunt’s good china. Even the small things, like a bib, sippy cups, and small-size flatware, can make a big difference in keeping your child at the table. If dinner will encroach on bedtime, bring a pair of pajamas and a blanket so your child can hunker down if she’s tired.
4. Be inclusive
Children are more likely to stay at the table if they aren’t listening to lots of adult conversations that go sailing over their heads. It may be a little cliche, but in our house we start the meal by going around and asking each family member what he or she is most thankful for this year. As our children have gotten older, they are more and more interested in this tradition, and it’s a great way to catch up on the positive things in everyone’s lives.
Some families put conversation-starter questions on index cards in the middle of the table, or under each person’s plate. It may seem unnecessary, but especially when you have a big crowd, having some structure (and kid-friendly conversation topics) can really help to keep the kids engaged.
5. Diversions are good
It’s inevitable that, no matter how well-behaved your children are, they will get up from the table before the adults do. Have quiet things for them to do (puzzles, books, card games, coloring pages, a Lego set) so they have someplace to focus their energy and you can enjoy the rest of your meal.
After dinner, consider planning a family activity. A few years ago, my mom started the tradition of playing bingo after Thanksgiving dinner. She makes gift bags, each with something small, and makes sure that everyone wins something. My kids look forward to this all year long.