Skip to content
Ask The Allergy Chef: Tips to Eliminates Screens, Phones, Tablets During Meal Times?

Ask The Allergy Chef: Any Tips on Removing Screens at the Dinner Table?

    Hi, I’ve come to realize that having screens at the dinner table (all meals really) has become bad for our family. I’ve tried just taking them away but that leads to meltdowns, especially with my toddler. Do you have any tips for getting rid of screens during meals?

    Hello, Yes I do. I’m sure you don’t need me to cite the research that points to the disruptive (and sometimes destructive) nature of screens. I want you to know however that I’m SO excited for your family to eliminate screens together and connect over meals.

    Take the Gradual Approach

    Rather than take the cold turkey approach, think more like weaning. Screens are incredibly addictive, especially in young children. Many kids, as you’ve experienced, don’t respond kindly to a sudden stop.

    In this situation, start with breakfast. Let’s say it’s normally 10 minutes. Purchase a few sand timers (with different timings). When everyone sits down, start the timer. Make it clear that once the sand runs out, they’re welcome to use the device. Also let them know they don’t have to use the device if they don’t want to.

    Then, really engage them at the table. Tell jokes, a story about your day, something from your childhood, and so on. Get your kids laughing and talking whilst they eat.

    In the early days, as soon as the sand is gone, they’ll get on the device. However, the connection you work on with them will become a stronger draw over time.

    You’ll need to gauge their response, but when you feel they’re ready, swap for the next sand timer. Perhaps you started with a 2 minute timer, now we jump to the 5 minute timer.

    Once your kids can go all of breakfast without the device, wait a week, then tackle dinner. Start with the short timer and repeat the process.

    After a few months, with this approach, you should be able to have your mealtimes screen free. 

    Get Your Partner on Board

    I can tell you this from personal experience: if your partner isn’t on board, this won’t work. I was in a situation where I the driving force behind eliminating excessive screen consumption. The other parents involved were the exact opposite. One would actively sabotage my efforts. The other was a total pushover (or would tell the kids to ask me, rather than tell them no).

    When you’re all alone in a battle of the screens, it will take a lot out of you. Have several conversations with your partner. Practice how to respond to the kids. Get on the exact same page about the plan and expectations. Then, hold each other accountable. 

    You absolutely, positively, NEED to have your partner on board for this to work.

    Have an Action Plan & Responses Planned

    You know your kids best and what types of parenting tools work well with them. Plan for different scenarios. You’ve already been thru meltdowns. When that happens again (it probably will the first week), how will you both respond? Ignore the meltdown? Redirect to the sand timer? Have a clever phrase? Start a tickle war? Plan for these moments.

    When you have a plan ready, it will be easier to not lose your mind in the moment. A few phrase ideas for you:

    • “We’ll look at the tablet when the sand is all gone. Want to help me add more eggs to my plate?”
    • “That sand reminds me of the desert, which makes me think about Egypt. Can I tell you a story?”
    • “Would you like a hug?”

    In some children, an activity helps, such as singing. Remember, you won’t always need these tools. The early days are the absolute hardest, and you’ll need to ride out the storm.

    When Older Kids push Back

    I’ve seen this a lot recently: parents “forget” they’re in charge. In other words, kids push back and parents give in.

    Having expectations of your children is totally normal, and we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that it’s not. Life isn’t a joyride all the time and it’s important for our kids to learn that. Additionally, we’re not being mean or cruel by having downtime from screens.

    Be prepared for an older child to talk about what their friends are allowed to do, demand to know why the change, and have toddler-like breakdowns. Remember, I’ve been where you are now.

    Meltdowns are not the time to explain yourself. Keep your answers short and stick to your rule(s). Then, like you would a toddler, offer a distraction and offer comfort. Believe it or not, they’re still very effective with older kids.

    Once your kids are calm, and away from the situation, explain it to them. If they’re old enough, talk about the science and how the brain is wired. Remind them kindly that you hear them, you understand, and that you’re in this together.

    Model The Behaviour

    This is critical. If you tell your kids no screens at the table, but you have one, this will blow up in your face. You absolutely need to model the behaviour you expect to see in your children.

    Having the phone in airplane mode at the table also isn’t an option. No screens means no screens.

    I’m sure you’ve experienced how distracting screens can be, even when they’re off. This is from the conditioning most people have gone through. The expectation of a message, the desire to scroll, etc.

    Have a basket in a different room where all the devices can sit until the sand timer runs out.

    Implement Set Times for Screen Time

    This only works in some situations, and you may need to define work/school screen time separately from leisure. 

    For some households, having a set time for screens works really well. With little kids, you can link it to something specific such as after nap time, or when the clock reads 4:00.

    Additionally, if you’re using sand timers to reduce screens, get a timer for screen time. Let your child know that they can use the screen until the sand timer runs out.

    Consider an Overall Reduction in Screen Time

    I applaud you for wanting to eliminate screen time at meals. I’m sure you’ve read different studies, seen the research, and heard first hand stories from other parents.

    Consider your overall plan for screens. If you want to reduce overall time, work on that plan now, and have mealtime be step one of the plan.

    You’ll want to avoid creating a vacuum of time. If this is the only entertainment in your home, you’ll have to change that. You can purchase several puzzles with your child, then work on them together, in place of where screen time would have been.

    Some kids will need you to “teach them” how to play if they’ve had screen access from a very early age. Also, bored kids lead to creative kids. It’s easy as parents to think we’re hurting our kids if they’re bored all the time. We’re not meant to be entertainment for them 24/7 (and neither are screens).

    When your kids get bored, offer several ideas such as drawing, talking on the phone with grandma, a puzzle, etc. If needed, offer to do this with them. As time goes on, you’ll start to see the shift in your child.

    Finally, Be Reasonable

    You didn’t get into this problem overnight, so it’s going to take time to get out of it. Also, screens are insanely addictive in children. It’s so important that you keep this, along with compassion, in mind as you move forward.

    Expect to see meltdowns, and respond to them kindly. You should also expect pushback, sadness, and sassy remarks. Stick to your guns because you’re in charge and you can do this.

    If you take the weaning route and you’re still seeing meltdowns after a month, try different options. As an example, eat diner outside. The change in environment disrupts what the child was expecting. You can also try creating new dinner routines. Additionally, read to your children whilst they eat (this is a debated topic but ultimately, replacing screens with books is a WIN).

    Hopefully something here helps and you’re able to eliminate screens during meals (and more). I’m in your corner and truly wishing you all the best on this endeavor.
    ~The Allergy Chef

    Have a question? Send it to

    Free Recipe Week

    Pop in your info and I'll send you TWENTY amazing recipes. Each recipe is Gluten Free, and Top 9 Allergy Free.