One of my favorite parts of every day is family dinner. I look forward to eating and talking with my husband every day after a long day of work. We like watching our little girl make a mess all over and our dog excitedly eating up whatever she throws on the floor. Growing up, it was a wonderful break from homework to have funny conversations with my family. I remember laughing over ridiculous things and having one family member who shall remain un-named having milk come out of their nose. It’s a time to unplug from work, school, electronics, and other commitments and just enjoy what brings us joy: family. But, I know that family dinners can also be hard. It’s difficult to cook after a long, exhausting day. Everyone has different schedules and it’s hard to meet up. It’s difficult to enjoy dinner with a crying baby. So, are family dinners really important? Are they worth the effort?
Does Family Dinner Really Make a Difference?
The answer is yes: family dinners really do make a difference. One large, national parenting program called Strengthening Families Program that I helped facilitate when working as a social work intern has family dinners as one of the components-and it was awesome! A study of nearly 100,000 adolescents showed that having frequent family dinners was associated with increased positive attributes (such as support, boundaries, commitment to learning, positive values, and self-esteem), and reduced negative behaviors (such as drugs, sex, and school-dropouts) (Fulkerson, et al., 2006). They found these beneficial associations for every attribute or behavior they measured. Click the link to see just how many amazing benefits they measured. No wonder the parenting course had family dinners as one of the components. No wonder the parenting course had family dinners as one of the components. It’s pretty amazing that family dinners are associated with better support, self-esteem, and learning for youth and reduced drugs and sexual behavior. These findings are true even after controlling for general family support and communication. What does that mean? It means that all of these benefits listed for family dinners are not simply due to having a supportive family and would happen regardless of whether or not they family dinners. It means that there really is something special about families that have dinner together most or all days of the week.
So, since family dinners are associated with so many positive benefits as well as less negative behaviors, it is probably one of the greatest rituals you can have as a family. The authors hypothesized that family dinners could have all these benefits because it indicates togetherness and positive interactions as a family. Makes sense, right? What an easy thing to do to promote family togetherness and healthy development in your teens. In addition to these mental health benefits, planning a nutritional family meal can obviously have great benefits on our health as well.
But as “easy” as it is, family dinners can be difficult to have in today’s fast-paced society and when everyone in the family has different activities and different directions for the day. Below are just a few ideas of how to make family dinner even better and more frequent.
Ask the Family For Dinner Ideas
Ask everyone in the family what they would like to make for dinner this week. This not only helps everyone feel interested in eating dinner but helps them know that you’re interested in what they want (and hence them). If the answer from young children is impossible (such as macaroni and cheese every night) then provide a few options for them to choose from. My family enjoys food, and hence this is an important part of our family dinner planning ritual. We probably ask way too much, “What should we eat for dinner tonight?”
Browse Websites with the Family for Dinner Ideas
It can be fun to look at Pinterest or food sites to find pictures of recipes that look good that you can try out together. Even young children who can’t read recipes can enjoy choosing recipes from pictures. Then, try cooking together. Not only do children learn how to cook, but it can be another great time to talk to each other. Some members of the family may learn they enjoy it and try developing cooking talents. And, as an added bonus, you can find new favorite dinners! Remember that family dinner doesn’t need to be gourmet. Sometimes the simple dinners, like breakfast for dinner, are fun. Some of our favorite meals growing up were grilled cheese and tomato soup or French bread pizza. Both are super easy to make and kids love them.
Maybe your spouse gets home from work late and you need to move dinner back a little bit. That’s okay-maybe you just have some healthy snacks out on the table for your “hangry” (hungry/angry) kids. Maybe you have scrambled eggs and toast for dinner because there isn’t time for anything else. Maybe you have a family picnic as you wait for a child’s game to start. Structure is wonderful, but when it can’t happen, try seeing what a little flexibility will do for your family dinners.
Conversation Starters and Teaching Moments
Look for opportunities to teach family values or educate children on important matters. When the conversation is flowing, it is easy to add positive values into the discussion. As people like to say, sometimes the best sermons happen in few words and in informal settings. When family dinners are a frequent ritual, then strong and valuable family messages and stories will inevitably be passed down.
Find interesting topics to discuss at the dinner table to get conversation flowing. There are many available sites and card game type activities to prompt interesting dinner discussions. Just google it. Some ideas are:
- Which animal do you think would win in a competition: ______ or _____?
- If you could travel back in time, when and where would you go?
- If you were world-famous for something, what would you want to be famous for?
- If you had to have one food only for the rest of your life, what would it be?
- Which character out of a book or movie would you most like to meet?
- Would you rather _____ or ______?
- What would you want to be world famous for if you were world famous?
- What activity do you want to plan next as a family?
- If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?
- What is the best invention since ______?
- What family vacation do you want to plan next?
- What do you think about ______ that has been in the news lately?
- What are you most looking forward to this next week?
- What are you proud of that you got through this week?
- Who is the best athlete/actor/musician of all time?
- Who is your hero and why?
- What difference do you want to make in the world?
- What do you appreciate that another family member has done lately?
Everybody Cooks and Cleans
Lastly, try both cooking and cleaning up together as well. What a great way to teach both team work and responsibility. In many homes these activities are split between individuals or groups of people, and while it can be frustrating to have too many cooks (or cleaners) in the kitchen, making this a family ritual can make a big difference over time. My siblings and I often fought over whose turn it was to do the easier part of the clean-up, but it taught us cooperation in the long run. The conversation can start while dinner is being prepared and continue as a great way to pass the time until the dishes are cleaned. Not every clean-up is fun, but I’ve definitely had some enjoyable times cleaning up as a family.
Fulkerson, J. A., Story, M., Mellin, A., Leffert, N., Neumark-Sztainer, D., & French, S. A. (2006). Family dinner meal frequency and adolescent development: Relationships with developmental assets and high-risk behaviors. Journal of Adolescent Health, 39(3). doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2005.12.026