Why You Should Prioritize Family Dinner + Easy Tips To Make The Most Of It
There are few things I remember being as important to my family as family dinner. Of course, after-school activities, work events, and capital-L Life often got the way, but a few times a week, we all gathered for a family meal. As a kid, I remember that it was just something we did; it was just part of life. Now as an adult who tries to cook nightly meals (tries!) without kids, I can appreciate that this was no small feat on behalf of my parents. How did they align four schedules, being working parents as well, and still get food on the table for all of us multiple times a week? Nothing short of a triumph.
And today, the added pressure of extracurricular activities and screen time likely only makes it more difficult. So we spoke with a few experts about being able to sit down for family meals—and how to make the most of it when you do.
"When it can't happen, it can't happen. We all have lives! But when it can, it does a lot of good things: One, it slows all of us down, so it will make calmer parents and kids. Then it will encourage your kid to practice mindful eating. And finally it creates a cap to the day, says says holistic psychiatrist Ellen Vora, M.D.
Put it on the schedule.
Just like you plan your work schedule, your workout plan, and the like—put family meals on the schedule. "The data suggest that four or more meals a week is beneficial for the kids," says Aliza Pressman, Ph.D., the cofounding director and director of clinical programming for the Mount Sinai Parenting Center. "It's correlational, so we don't know why, but likely if a family is committing to sit down together, it's a kind of family that is committing to a positive relationship."
Pressman says for her own family, she makes sure that when it's on the family calendar, nothing else can happen during that time. "No one can schedule anything for work; even if my older daughter has extra homework, we emphasize that you have to eat, and eat while just being present in the meal." And if something really does come up? Cut down the time, but don't cut the dinner entirely. "It doesn't need to be 45 minutes, it can be 15, but you need to take that beat," she says.
If dinner isn't an option, just prioritize any mealtime.
"My advice is if you can't fit in dinner—if your kid is young, they might be eating at 5 p.m. and your whole family isn't home yet—just find a mealtime that you can have together," says Pressman. Remember that four-times-a-week goal? Those meals can happen at any point! Maybe this means you have breakfast together once a week, dinner another day, a family brunch on Saturday, and a dinner on Sunday—there, you've already hit four meals. "It's not the dinner that's important. It's important that you are gathering together for a meal opportunity to check in with each other, having conversations, putting your phones away, and being present."
Let them feel like a part of mealtime.
Perhaps there's some resistance to family meals because of how the meals are set up. Are you eating similar foods? Are you all joined in on the same topic? "Kids just want to be little adults," says Vora. "So when your kids see you eating and what you are eating, they'll want to join in. So invite them into mealtime by eating the same or some of the same real foods. And invite them into the conversation."
Obviously depending on your child's age or eating restrictions, there might be some differences in the meals, but try and have some overlap. "You can't encourage your kid to eat broccoli if you don't have it on your plate," says Vora. This, too, will help everyone feel like they're present together—you're a unit.
"And then from there, you really do have to figure out how to connect. It's easier said than done with kids, but you really do have to figure out how to do it on their terms," she says. "This is something I'm guilty of—I ask questions like a psychiatrist, which my young daughter doesn't really connect to. So I need to make space for her to talk in her own way."
Now, when you do sit down for a meal, how you interact with your family is the important part. So even if you do have to cut it down to 15 minutes, or you're not able to get to that full four-times-a-week goal, the time you do spend together is at least meaningful. One game Vora recommends? High-low, where you go around the table discussing the good and not-so-good part of your day. (It also makes for a great bedtime ritual if dinner isn't in the cards.)
"You just want some daily ritual where they are able to reflect on their day. Think about what you are grateful for, but also air out anything that you went through that was challenging that day," says Vora. Sometimes those are the richer parts, too, because you can work through things together."