5 Mindful Activities to Help Kids Self-Regulate During Dinner

mindful activities to help kids self-regulate during dinner

Dinner Struggles

I hear dinner is supposed to be a wonderfully restorative, peaceful time lovingly spent with family and friends discussing the day’s events…unless, of course, you’re the parent of young children. Then, it can feel like you’re eating in the middle of a tornado. This, alas, was the case in our first experience eating a five-course meal.

We were on vacation in Ireland, and decided dinner at the hotel was the best bet after a long day of driving through the countryside. I was excited! The five courses included free meals for my three young children plus dessert at the end. I’m a fan of deals, so this was a no-brainer. Little did I know the dinner would last two long hours, which were excruciating for my two 4-year-olds and 6-year-old after a day of sitting in the car. They were very hungry, anxious, and wanted to play, which made them increasingly loud and needy. We were woefully out of place at this self-proclaimed four-star restaurant.

The one set of travel crayons and single coloring book we brought did not entertain them for long. I had to think fast to come up with some games that could get my kiddos’ minds off the long wait. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but these activities helped my kids become more mindful of their surroundings and alleviate some of the stress around their hunger pains and impatience.

5 Games That Engage the Senses

If you have a long wait, your child is bored with the adult conversation, or if you just want to help your child relax in a fun and interactive way, try these mindful sensing games at the dinner table.

mindful activities to help kids self-regulate during dinner

Mindful Seeing

A mindful take on the game I Spy is my go-to activity in almost any circumstance (long walks, long waits, long train rides, etc.). Have your child describe things they see in a quiet environment. Point out objects they don’t typically notice and describe them. You can also have your child guess a new object they haven’t noticed. Paintings on the wall, interesting or seasonal objects, and anything to do with animals usually intrigue my kids.

Mindful Tasting

Okay, this one happens before any food arrives. After you’ve ordered, have your children imagine what the food or drink they ordered will taste like. Have them imagine the smell first. Then have them imagine having the food or drink in their mouths. Ask: is the food crunchy, smooth, bubbly, etc.? This is great for practicing adjectives and using their imagination to be mindful of how things may taste.

Mindful Listening

Have your child listen to the sounds they hear in the room. Tell them to whisper all the things they hear, making sure to take turns. Recently, we did this in a restaurant that was under construction outside—it was fun guessing all the tools the workers were using at any given time. You can also have your children close their eyes and see if they’re better able to focus on specific sounds when they remove one of their senses.

Mindful Breathing

My kids love drawing, and they happen to be learning about shapes at the moment. They also love drawing on restaurant napkins. Have your child get a napkin and crayon and then draw a triangle. They should breathe in as they draw one side, and then out as they draw another. Add another challenge by having them close their eyes as they draw and breathe (I should probably note that this isn’t recommended when the restaurant has all cloth napkins!).

Mindful Smelling (and Tasting)

Continue the mindful journey even after the food arrives—you can play this game with appetizers as well. Have your child smell the food before they take a bite. Ask them if the food tastes like they thought it would. Does the food taste surprising?

While we’ve practiced all of these games in restaurants and at home, these mindful sensing activities can be perfect for upcoming Thanksgiving meals. Feel free to get the whole family involved while helping to prepare for the meal!

Check out this parent-friendly resource to read more about how to incorporate mindfulness in your home or family outings: 10 Mindful Minutes: Giving Our Children–and Ourselves–the Social and Emotional Skills to Reduce Stress and Anxiety for Healthier, Happier Lives.

By Jennifer Sobalvarro, who has experience teaching in 3rd and 5th grade classrooms as well as ELL instruction.

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