31 Design Tips to Make Family Dinners More Fun
Draw on the power of smart design to get your kids to linger over their meals and—fingers crossed!—talk to you too.
Comfy places to sit and a table that’s durable and intimate are non-negotiable when it comes making mealtime more enjoyable for everyone. But everything from the lightening to the decor around your dining room also impacts how everyone feels in the space. And you want everyone to be upbeat and optimistic!
From keeping surfaces bright and fun to setting the table with stuff your kids will love, here are our best tips and tricks for upping your family dinner game.
1. Try Before You Buy.
When shopping for dining chairs, head to a store and sit in the real deal. (Bring the kids!)
2. Assign Seats.
This helps with squabbles and is comforting to kids. “A designated chair creates ownership, and we all feel more relaxed in a place that feels like ‘ours,’ ” says Sally Augustin, Ph.D.
3. Stop the Fidgeting.
The perennially popular Stokke Tripp Trapp chair gradually grows with your child and includes a footrest.
4. Go round.
It’s the best shape for conversation. “When it’s possible to make eye contact with everyone at the table, people feel much more open to talking,” says environmental and design psychologist Sally Augustin, Ph.D. “It’s also an equalizer: There’s no head of the table.”
5. Keep it cozy.
Choose one that’s midsize (a six-seater gives most families a little elbow room), and consider one that expands with leaves to an oval for holidays. A smaller round table also makes it possible to serve food family-style without having to get up a hundred times.
6. Put it on a pedestal.
If you want your kids to be comfortable, they need to be able to maneuver in the space easily. “With kids in mind, I like to minimize two things: corners and table legs,” says Kelly Mindell, a blogger at StudioDIY.com. “A round, pedestal-style table means you’re not worried about kids banging into legs all the time.” One she loves and has in her own dining room: West Elm’s Silhouette Pedestal Dining Table.
7. Embrace the rustic trend.
Farmhouse tables are supposed to have a worn look, so they’ll hide almost anything, says Homepolish interior designer and mom Crystal Sinclair. Avoid options with lots of grooves where crumbs can get stuck.
8. Splurge a little.
“Your table gets a lot of wear, and cheaper ones are going to show it faster,” says Erin Gates, a mom and author of Elements of Family Style. Don’t worry; you can save money elsewhere. Chairs, lighting, and rugs can all be scored at a discount and no one will notice.
9. Keep chairs light.
Elementary-school kids should be able to pull the chairs in and out themselves, so avoid heavy and bulky options. And skip chairs with arms, which can make kids feel trapped. Opt instead for something similar to the Eiffel Chair.
10. Consider height.
For a kid to eat comfortably, he should be looking down at his food, says Jennifer Anderson, R.D.N., a Maryland mom of two who runs KidsEatInColor.com. This may mean adding a booster seat for your littles. “If your child is too low to eat comfortably or make eye contact with his siblings, he’s going to be more focused on that than on enjoying family time,” says Roger Hart, Ph.D., an environmental psychologist and director of the Children’s Environments Research Group, at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.
11. Try a youth chair.
These tall children’s chairs with footrests bridge the gap between a high chair and a grown-up chair. Find them at IKEA and YouthChairStore.com.
12. Take care of dangling feet.
Giving your kids’ legs a place to rest can make little ones feel more stable and secure (and, you guessed it, get them to sit longer). Choose chairs that already have a bar around the legs, or simply stick a footstool under your youngest and call it a day.
13. Include the babies.
“Go for a high chair that can be pulled right up to the table and has streamlined legs that you won’t constantly trip over,” says Sinclair. Nomi chair.
14. Don’t fear upholstery.
But do choose the right fabric. Crypton, Sunbrella, and leather are great options. Yes, leather: “It’s super-easy to clean, can take a beating from little hands, and will get a nice patina over time,” says San Francisco mom and Decorist designer Briana Nix.
15. Or try a bench.
If the thought of sticky fingers on fabric chairs makes you sweat, go for a bench. “I love ours because my son can get his wiggles out but is still at the table with the family,” says Ashley Wilson, mom and blogger at AtHomeWithAshley.com in Logan, Utah. And yes, these are comfy for kids as long as the seats are wide enough. If one side of the table is next to a wall, you can also try a banquette with built-in storage. Double win!
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16. Think in threes.
“I always try to have three sources of light in each room: one overhead, some sconces on the wall, and a table lamp. Then you can play with the intensity of each source to get the mood you want,” says mom of two Dee Murphy, of Murphy Deesign, in Los Angeles.
17. A dimmer is everything.
Research shows that lower lighting creates a softer, more relaxed vibe, which encourages people to slow down and socialize, explains Dr. Augustin. Plus, dimmers are supercheap and easy to install. Woo-hoo!
18. Add a chandelier.
But make it fun! Opt for a whimsical bubble chandelier with glass spheres, for example, and your kids will love it as much as you do, says Nix.
19. Downsize your bulbs.
Check the wattage your fixtures require, then go at least one level down, advises Ginette Dean, an interior designer and mom in Pelham, New York. And make sure those bulbs are labeled “soft light.”
The Special Extras
20. Let creativity rule.
A roll of craft paper makes a great table runner, says Lindsey Boehmke, mom of two and blogger at HilltownHouse.com. Write a special message on it for half birthdays, Taco Tuesday, or the first day of school, then let the kids color it in as they eat.
21. Bring in nature.
“Kids respond to beauty and nature just as much as adults do,” says Murphy, who tries to always have greenery in her dining room. You could even plant seeds with the kids and check their progress every night. Leafy plants also relax us and boost our mood, adds Dr. Augustin.
22. Skip boring napkins.
Keep a supply of cocktail napkins with fun patterns and bright colors. Whoever sets the table that night gets to choose their fave! (You can buy these on the cheap at stores like HomeGoods.) Play some tunes. Putting on background music can help kids and parents unwind. A tiny smart speaker stashed in the corner is perfect!
23. Play some tunes.
Putting on background music can help kids and parents unwind. A tiny smart speaker stashed in the corner is perfect!
24. Rugs are A-OK.
They cozy up your dining room and, if you have an open concept, will help your kids differentiate it from the living space. Two don’t-stress-the-mess options: an outdoor rug or a patterned one with lots of colors that can mask stains, suggests Boehmke, like the Aveline Hand-Woven Blue Area Rug or the Safavieh Vintage Distressed Boho Hamadan Gody Oriental Rug in red/multi.
25. Shop the patio section.
Beyond outdoor rugs, there are table runners, seat cushions, place mats, and more that are made to withstand the elements—and therefore have a shot against your kids!
26. Have fun with wallpaper.
“The more interesting and colorful the room, the more your kids will respond to it,” says Gates. Dr. Augustin suggests a design with curvy lines because research shows that people are more comfy in décor with free-flowing, organic shapes. Look for a vinyl option if you’re concerned about staining.
27. Or try a chalkboard wall.
It’s so fun for the kids, and it can be wiped down to look like a cool, dark statement wall when adults are over.
28. A little kitsch goes a long way.
Superman, dinos, Frozen ... Pick up plates with characters and colors you know they adore and you’ll make dinnertime special. Or go all out and get custom plates with their names at.
29. Swap out forks.
Hand your preschooler a pair of trainer chopsticks. “When kids have a new eating utensil that challenges their developmental skills, they become very engrossed in learning to use the utensil and eating,” says Anderson.
30. Use kiddie place mats.
Place mats that wipe clean and feature maps or colorful infographics are Dean’s go-to for casual weeknights. “They protect the table and are fodder for dinnertime convos,” she adds.
31. Let them feel fancy.
Introduce some “grownup” pieces. Boehmke recommends Corelle dishes (South Beach 16-piece set), which are virtually unbreakable. “These signal it’s time to take dinnertime seriously,” she says.