We've all been there. It's about 5 p.m. and you've just gotten home from work with your kids in tow after a long day at school or daycare or other activities. You desperately need to make dinner but your children are winding into a frenzy.
They're hungry, they're tired, and they want your attention – you just hope you won't chop your finger instead of the carrots as you look up for the 18th time to tell your preschooler not to bite her brother even though he pushed her off the chair. Tantrums and tears ensue.
This, my fellow parents, is the witching hour. The details of your story may vary, but I’m willing to bet you’ve been there.
I've been known to resort to screen time or to yell distracted (and usually useless) directions at my kids during the witching hour. Both of these solutions are more likely to exacerbate the bad behavior than solve it, and I know it. But we're just human, right?
When I'm in better form, I remember some of the strategies that lead to happier, and less chaotic, early evening experiences. Strategies that have worked for us and, not surprisingly, seem to ring true with parenting experts and researchers.
Many parenting experts agree that emotional connections between children and their parents are essential for creating positive relationships; there is also evidence that strong relationships lead to children actually wanting to listen to and please their parents. Lack of a strong connection can be a prime explanation for children who act out or meltdown.
It should come as no surprise, then, that kids want to connect with their parents after a long day of separation. If we withhold that connection while we try to get dinner made (or the groceries put away, or the house cleaned) we can cause our children to act out in all sorts of ways.
Older kids may actually tell you that they want some time with you by begging for you to play a game or read a book, but younger children may not have the words to explain. In either case, spending 15 minutes of dedicated time with our children BEFORE we try to "get stuff done" is a great way to meet their needs.
Rebecca Eanes describes this, in relation to a term that Dr. John Gottman coined, as “turning toward” our children’s bids for attention. Even if we can’t play with a child right away, we can still “turn toward them” by showing them that we hear and understand their request, and will try to find a way to fulfill it once we are able to stop what we're currently doing.
I've found that once I do give my children some of the attention that they need – in a mindful, intentional way – when I make dinner my children are more likely to happily entertain themselves, or engage with me calmly while I work.
I've also had success inviting my child to join me in the kitchen after our time together. I try to ask them about their day using specific questions that elicit stories, or get them stirring one of the dishes. I've frequently noticed that my son offers to help out more after I've paid significant attention to his needs.
The longer our children have to wait to eat, the more likely they are to be hungry. Hungry kids can turn "hangry" in a hurry. Telling our children that dinner will be ready in a half-hour and that they'll have to wait has never been that successful in our case.
That said, giving your child "snack food" right before dinner is also a pretty good recipe for poor eating at dinner. Ellyn Satter, founder of the Satter Feeding Dynamics Model, says that parents should, “do the what, when, and where of feeding; other family members do the how much and whether of eating.”
She encourages family meals, but she also recognizes that kids may come home from school completely famished and not be able to make it to dinner. This is where Satter’s “sit down snack” idea comes into play. If you are going to give your child a snack, they should sit down to eat it rather than eating on the fly while they play. The food should be high quality and well-rounded, and it should be timed long enough before the next meal so as not to mess up that meal.
Drawing on these principles, I've found success giving my children a sit down snack right when we come home – something that I consider healthy and almost a “phase one” of dinner. I lean toward fruits and vegetables when I can, adding a little bit of cheese or hummus for protein.
Providing this snack also means that I can calm down a bit on the rush to get dinner on the table since they won’t be hungry again right away. And, this way, we’ve also created time for more connection. When dinner time does come around, I keep their servings modest knowing that they've eaten a healthy snack and may not be ravenous at dinner time, which is just fine with me. They can ask for more if they are still hungry.
So you’ve attended to your child’s needs and now you're reasonably free to prepare dinner. What are you going to make? I hate that feeling of staring into the fridge trying to see if we have anything decent I can pull together in a reasonable amount of time. That’s why one of the most valuable routines (that my husband and I manage to stick to about 25 percent of the time) is planning a week’s worth of meals on Saturday or Sunday.
In addition to the bonus of simply knowing what you're going to cook, there are couple of added bonuses to this planning thing. For instance, you can shop for what you need on the weekend and know that you have it on hand. You can make those recipes you keep bookmarking but never get around to. You can double dip on a few ingredients across multiple meals (a big batch of black beans or a pulled pork). And you can plan even easier nights by working leftovers into the picture. As an example, check out this menu that we planned for meat free week this summer.
Research has also shown that stress around meal planning can have a negative impact on older children’s willingness to participate in family meals. Conversely, parents (mothers, in this research) who value family meals and plan ahead so that they are regularly scheduled are more likely to have children who participate. And family meals are connected to all sorts of positive outcomes for children and families (see The Family Dinner Project).
Planning ahead helps us feel less frenzied and more prepared, while also resulting in higher quality meals that we're all more likely to enjoy together.
I can’t pretend that every evening in our household is free from tantrums and meltdowns, but I can say that I've tried these strategies with great success. I only wish I remembered to use them more often!