19 Tips For Surviving Chaotic Family Dinners

by Elisa Johnston
Brother taking away hamburger from his sister
Scary Mommy and Anthony Redpath/Getty

I know a lot of families don’t do this, but in our home, we practice the glorious family dinner. Sitting together for an intentional half-hour a day in the midst of the crazy of life is one of the primary ways we stay connected.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t lovely and idyllic. In fact, family dinner often sucks (and in more ways than just sucking up spaghetti noodles).

Screw all the research out there that proves this is a good thing! Because honestly, by the time we are done I often have to lock myself in the bathroom. Here in the lingering odorous humidity, I breathe meditatively, tapping my chest in time to rhythmic whispers of, “I can’t do this. Help me, Jesus. I can’t do this. It’s too much. I can’t do this…I need your help.”

I invite you to try this bathroom breathing meditation sometime. Lay down your own lines to the nice soothing beat.

Somewhere in the bathroom humidity, I began to wonder if it was actually doing our family any good, with the “making memories” and all of that. What if instead of producing great adults, family dinner pushes me over the edge and I run away, scarring my children for life?

That’s when I decided to approach dinner differently, not as a potential peaceful moment or beautiful connection. Now I strap my invisible shadowhunter boots on and call it training.

Believe it or not, this perspective shift empowered me greatly. It also positioned me to learn a few things. There are actually some great practices we normal, everyday parents can do in order to make the dinnertime chaos more tolerable.

Practice bathroom meditations before dinner. As I always say, it is better to give from overflow. (You’re welcome for that gem)

We have a set mission and defined a common goal: to connect with the kids. It’s more my goal than my spouse’s, but it is clear and he’s adapted to it.

Assigned chairs. Deviation just messes with everyone and causes fights to break out around all corners of the table. And the toddlers? Don’t feel any guilt about locking them up in those highchairs. They will adapt. It’s training, right?

No phones or T.V. at the table. Really, people, we can survive looking at each other’s faces for half-an-hour.


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Have a start and end time to dinner. Some people do this with an actual consistent dinnertime. Good for them. I’m not that mama. However, I can mark the beginning of eating. We mark our beginning with thanksgiving. Then we require the classic, “May I be excused?” to conclude. It’s genius, really, but I guess I can’t take all the credit. I’ve heard a rumor that this has been a custom for a century, or millennia or two.

Give everyone a turn to talk, not allowing interruptions. This is where the real training comes in (and it requires way too much management in my opinion). But, like I said: that’s why I’m wearing my invisible shadowhunter boots.

Imagine a lot more chairs. A friend once told me to think of everyone’ “stuff” as another seat at the table, empowering you to be realistic with how much energy the dinner table takes. Each learning challenge, mental health diagnosis, and neurological disorder equals another seat at the table. That means that for the six of us in my home I need to imagine . . . I don’t know? Thirty-six seats? We need a bigger table! And I need to hide in the bathroom to breathe! (Rhythmically, of course!)

Coach the non-verbal cues. Again, because of the dynamics in my home, this might need to happen a tad bit more frequently at the table than yours might need. But everyone has to start somewhere, so kicking brother under the table to help them recognize that sister across from them was hoping for an empathetic response (“see that expression on her face, dear?”) can go a long way.

Find a simple method to remind your kids to use their manners. Our close friends numbered their table rules, so it was pretty common to hear a random “Two!” or “Three!” thrown without pause into our dinnertime conversation. My Grandmita used to quote a Gelett Burgess poem at me: “The Goops they lick their fingers, And the Goops they lick their knives; They spill their broth on the tablecloth–Oh, they lead disgusting lives!” In our home, we usually snark, “Couldn’t do that if the Queen was here,” and move on.

Speaking of manners, we’ve been trying to enforce the no farting rule at the table for a while. A scientific study might conclude we are on our way!

Although we try to keep our lovers’ spats from disrupting dinner, the kids are given to yelling at us to stop fighting. This isn’t really a helpful tip, but maybe it will be good for you to be reminded you aren’t alone!

Have conversation starters. Ask each person if there is anything interesting or something they want to share. Talk about the day’s thorns and roses. Highs and lows. Best part/worst part. You get the picture.

When it gets too crazy, we play the quiet game. Weirdly, it usually works.

Mama’s personal rule: no touching at the table. I love cuddles and hugs… but at dinner? There is a zero tolerance zone.

We regularly try to bring the kids into our beliefs. One a week we might tell a story from our faith, or ask questions to help them think about it. It might also be more external, such as reading a letter from our sponsor child, or sharing a way we’ve used our money for good and the impact of that donation. We don’t do these things as much as we’d like to, but even our little bit actually goes a long way. We’re raising world changers here!

If someone is screaming or having a sobfest, they can go to their room for a little awhile. (Including mama.)

Dinner helpers. It was just too much to not enlist the minions.

Dad jokes are the worst. This is why we keep bad joke books in the napkin holder for these #BestMemoriesEver

Not surprising, pour on lots of grace. It tastes better than Diet Coke, it’s smoother than red wine, and works quicker than late-night coffee.

Parents, I believe you can make a difference in your home. If family dinners are going to create a foundation for our kids to connect with us and become confident enough to believe they can change the world, shared meals are worth it.

Grab your fork. It’s dinnertime.