One of the greatest things about family dinner is that it’s available to everyone. Unlike many other ways to boost the health and well-being of the whole family, raise kids’ grades and literacy skills and help defend against risky behavior like underage drinking, drug use, teen pregnancy and eating disorders, family dinner is something that you can do anytime right in your own home.
Except, of course, for those evenings when you just can’t.
We get it: While family dinner really IS possible for many of us, most of the time (maybe with a little planning ahead), there are going to be times when getting everyone together at the table is an epic feat. For some families, scheduling crunches happen one or more nights during the week because of conflicting after-school activity schedules and work commitments. For others, the need to work evening shifts may make gathering the whole family for dinner a practical impossibility most of the time.
So when it just can’t happen…should you give up on it altogether?
Absolutely not. The benefits of family dinners really boil down to the combination of three key ingredients: Food, fun and conversation. If you can create an experience that blends all three, then “dinner” isn’t necessary. Here are five ways to share a meal when the schedule seems impossible:
Have family breakfast, Saturday lunch or Sunday brunch.
While eating together five or more times per week is the most desirable goal, ANY regularly scheduled family mealtimes will help you gain some of the benefits of shared meals. Choose at least one that will work well for everyone, and make it a standing appointment for all family members.
Set aside snacktime.
Sitting down together to prepare and enjoy a snack — whether it’s a bite after school, a pre-dinner veggie tray before someone heads out the door, or a dessert before bedtime — can be just as rewarding as having a whole meal together. When time is tight, make a ritual out of the small moments. You may be surprised how much you enjoy it!
Get creative about time and space.
If sports practice or other evening activities are standing in your way, why not bring family dinner along? Pack a picnic of sandwiches or salads and fruit, and get to the field a little early to eat and talk together. Or make sure everyone enjoys a light, early meal together at home before the activities begin, and make a healthy snack available later in the evening to keep hunger at bay.
Use technology to stay connected.
We first heard this tip from the military families we’ve met through our work with Blue Star Families. While technology at the table isn’t always our first choice, in this case it’s a winner: If a loved one is absent for family dinner because of work or travel obligations, try arranging to connect via Skype or FaceTime during all or part of your meal. That way they can participate in the conversation and fun, and you’ll be able to enjoy dinner “together.”
Make family “pods.”
There’s no substitute for having everyone present, but on truly busy nights, breaking the family into “pods” for dinner can be one way to keep food, fun and conversation on the calendar. Maybe one parent heats up the chili and eats with one or two kids; then when they’ve dashed out the door, the others arrive home and sit down for the “second shift.” A fun way to connect the two mealtimes could be to leave a set of conversation starters and a game on the table, so everyone enjoys the same experience at different times. Also, don’t forget about the occasional late straggler — if one family member is going to be coming home later and eating alone, make an effort to sit down with them and spend that time together!
Scheduling can be tricky, but with a little creativity, shared meals can still make an appearance on your calendar.
What are your favorite tips for making family meals happen despite a busy schedule?