Parents also need to give children time to learn how to appreciate different foods, just as they would with any other developmental milestone, says Weiss.
“It takes time to learn to ride a bike, to potty train, to learn how to read,” Weiss said. “Teaching your kid to appreciate new flavors takes a long time, too. You just have to go with it and look at it as a skill that kids need to acquire.”
To avoid conflict over food, Rosenstrach uses what she calls the Venn diagram approach. Everyone eats some combination or variation of what is being offered: Maybe one child eats his pasta plain but devours the salad, and the other has sauce on her pasta but passes on the greens.
“It’s [the kids’] job to decide what to eat and how much to eat,” Bissex said.
3. Make it an orderly affair
Practice good table manners, but in moderation, Fishel says, so that it doesn’t take away from the positive aspects of sitting down together for a family meal. Fishel suggests focusing on one or two manners at a time, and picking something that is really important to your family.
“If the dinner table is too much about criticizing and evaluating and educating and critiquing, it can really take the fun out of the whole experience, and that kind of mood tends to shut things down,” Fishel said. “To the extent that parents can model good manners and can critique around those manners that are getting in the way of respectful listening and talking, those would be the manners I would highlight, rather than ‘get your elbows off the table.’ ”
For a younger child, putting her napkin on her lap and using silverware instead of hands is a good starting point. As children age, parents can focus on other skills, such as chewing with your mouth closed.
Dinner should be an electronics-free time: No television, but also no BlackBerrys, phones or iPods, for children and grown-ups alike. “It detracts from bonding, talking about your day and sharing,” Bissex said.
“Music is a good exception” to the no-electronics rule, said Folsom of Alexandria. Her family listens to pop music, public radio or alternative music on their satellite radio. “It’s particularly a nice non-monetary, non-food reward, so we say, ‘You were really good today; let’s listen to some music at the table.’ ”
4. Sustain conversation
Under the best of circumstances, kids can be stingy with the give-and-take of information about their day. Throw fatigue and low blood-sugar levels into the mix, and attempts at polite dinner conversation can be disastrous.
Rosenstrach offers her two girls, Phoebe, 10, and Abby, 8, a tortilla chip with salsa in exchange for a tidbit about their day while she is making dinner. The little snack during that witching hour can ease some of the crankiness, while the parent gains valuable intelligence about the goings-on at school.