When I was growing up, family dinner was a priority for our family, and it happened at least five or six times a week. In high school, before we left for the football game or the movies, we could invite friends over, but we always had a family dinner. I look back on this fondly. This was the place we connected about our day and hashed out issues and concerns — and trust me, with four daughters in the house there was always a lot to hash out. Even before starting a family I knew continuing this tradition was important to me, but now with three children and busy schedules, it feels almost impossible. I recently read an article that included research from several studies linking regular family dinners with lower rates of substance abuse, eating disorders, and depression, as well as higher grades and self-esteem. It’s hard to argue with that, so now how can parents make it happen? Here are some tips our family is trying to ensure family dinner remains a priority and an important part of our family tradition.
The only way to make sure something happens is to put it on the calendar. So now just as we schedule soccer practice, book clubs, and dance lessons, we also schedule family dinners. We look at the week ahead and try to set nights aside when everyone can be home for dinner. This is much easier said than done: Balancing a preschooler who likes to eat early with two older siblings with afterschool activities and a husband who has a lot of evening meetings is a challenge — but I am determined. If it looks like a crazy week, we try for breakfast or maybe a weekend lunch. The point is taking time to all be together and share a meal — not so much as which meal it is.
The other part of planning is what you will eat. Planning meals in advance so there is more time to enjoy the meal instead of fixing it can be a huge help. My go-to for this has been our Crock-Pot. Two nights a week when I know I won’t be home all day, I start dinner before we leave and by the time we get home it is ready, so dinner can be on the table in a matter of minutes. Another thing that has helped is planning the week’s meals on Sunday. This takes a lot of the pressure away from what I call the “five o’clock fret” when you are staring at the refrigerator and have no idea what you are going to make for dinner.
Now that you have worked so hard to get everyone together with food on the table, how do you keep it from becoming a nag-fest about table manners or conversations that are like pulling teeth to find out about everyone’s day? There are two keys: Choose the topics and rethink your view of table manners. I am still a stickler for napkins on the lap and chewing with your mouth closed, but also consider your children’s ability to engage in a conversation, look someone in the eye, and contribute their ideas without interrupting also as vital table manners, which will serve them well beyond the family dinner table.
If you are tired of asking the same question, “How was your day?” then switch it up a bit. For a while we did the “rose/thorn” game. Everyone takes a turn sharing what the “rose” or best part of his or her day was and the “thorn,” a hard or challenging part. But even this gets a bit stale, so over the summer I found a great book, The Children’s Book of Questions. This has been a lifesaver for family dinners as well as long car rides. It is a small book I can throw in my purse for dinners out or copy questions to put under everyone’s plate at the dining table. They can be as simple as “If you had three wishes, what would they be?” to “Do you know how your name was chosen?” or even something a little more serious: “If you could change one thing about the world what would it be?” You may find you learn a lot more about what is going on in everyone’s life this way than just asking about their day.
One of the biggest obstacles families face when trying to have a dinner together is technology. We signed on to the campaign from Common Sense Media called “device-free dinner,” so now as part of our family’s digital media plan, we have agreed not to bring or check phones at the table. We have committed to giving each other those 30 minutes (on a good night) to be distraction-free and to focus on each other. I strongly suggest every family try this. It makes a big difference in the quality of conversation, and personally it brings me back to my own childhood when those distractions didn’t exist.