A chief complaint of parents with small children? “Dinner is a mess! The kids are yelling and no one is eating…it is an awful way to end the day!”

While 6 PM is often a tough hour for many small children, there are some easy steps every parent can take to have dinner go from frenzied to fun

1) Recognize that kids don’t typically have much of an appetite for dinner.

They have front-loaded their calories (which is good), and are not interested in your meatloaf at 6 PM. It isn’t personal. The less personally you take the misbehavior, the more calm you will be as a parent.

2) Have your children help you meal-plan.

They can pick a protein, a carbohydrate and a veggie and create a dinner one night a week, or more! The more invested the child is in the food, the more likely they are to eat it.

3) And speaking of planning: have your children help you make the dinner.

Tearing and washing lettuce, stirring, mashing…these are all tasks children can perform, from even very young ages. The sense of pride a child has when they have contributed works meal-time miracles!

4) Keep the focus on the family and chatting, not the food.

Ask each other interesting questions (“If you were a color, which one would you be?” or “If you had to live in one room in the house, which one?” or “Which super-power would you want and why?”) Questions like this spur interesting conversations (“What did you do in school today?” is not an interesting question!)

5) Do not count “bites.”

“Three more bites of peas,” is food-policing and, unless your child has medical issues, this is not a way to spend a meal. Notice when your child tries something: “I see you tried your peas! Delicious, right?” Encouraging the behavior you want to see will get you further, especially in the long run.

6) Do not offer dessert as a reward for “finishing dinner.”

This makes children sweets-obsessed and turns you into the food police again. A good policy? Dessert is offered Friday and Saturday nights and the children can eat it whenever they want during the meal. Take the power away from the dessert by simply giving it to them early and twice a week. Otherwise, no sweets during the week.

7) Most importantly, remember that dinner is a time for the whole family to come together.

Share, laugh and simply enjoy each other. As parents, try not to get mired down in the food choices and number of bites. Stay positive, stay smiling and truly try to enjoy their company. You will be surprised how quickly the children will follow your lead!