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Newsletter: October 2023

Family Dinner: Stressful, or Stress-Busting?

Dinnertime can be stressful. Even for families who generally love their time together at the table, getting there can sometimes feel like a slog. My family is no exception: On a recent evening, hideous traffic jams during all the after-school activity carpooling shortened both my temper and the time I would have to actually cook dinner. Rushing in the door, frantically chopping and stirring, setting the table while answering emails, and then watching my younger teen take approximately four bites of his home-cooked meal before trying to excuse himself in favor of cookies and video games did nothing for my mood. For a second, I couldn’t help but wonder why I’d bothered. It seemed like all I had managed to accomplish with our family dinner was making a bunch of dishes to wash.

And then a memory popped up on my phone screen – a thread from the COVID pandemic lockdown days, where a dozen or so of my friends were chatting about how much better dinner had become now that they had time on their hands. How grateful they were to be able to sit down with their families each night. How novel it felt to actually cook a meal instead of swinging through the drive-thru or ordering delivery. That thread reminded me of the research Dr. Anne Fishel conducted in 2021, which showed that more than half of the families studied found their COVID-era meals valuable enough to want to keep up with their new family dinner habits after the pandemic. Two years later, with all the old stresses and pressures back on our plates, is dinner still worth the hassle?

I asked Dr. Fishel to help me figure out whether family dinner, in 2023, is more of a stressor or a stress-buster. Together, we dove into recent research, and here’s what we found:

  • Family meals are a prime opportunity to fight the growing trends of loneliness and social isolation. The Office of the Surgeon General endorses strengthening connections to family members as an important strategy to stave off depression, isolation, and overwhelm. And – rushed or not – our regular attempts to gather for a meal together are one of the most reliable opportunities many families have to connect face-to-face and socialize without distractions.
  • Fewer family meals can lead to poorer mental health outcomes. In studies done recently both in Brazil and in New Zealand, researchers found that school children and adolescents who ate fewer meals with their families had higher rates of common mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. The students who fared best, mental-health-wise, typically ate both breakfast and dinner with family members.
  • Meta-reviews of existing research underscore that family meals improve mental wellbeing. A recent analysis of more than forty existing research studies from the past two decades revealed that the evidence for better mental health through more frequent family meals is consistent. Some of the confirmed outcomes included lower rates of depression, higher self-image, less suicidal ideation, and less disordered eating.
  • Overall, quality counts more than quantity. Although some studies – like the New Zealand research listed above – suggest that “more is more,” recent research has found it’s the quality of the interaction around the table, more than the frequency, that matters. Positive emotional interactions during family meals, lengthening the time spent at the table when you do gather, decreasing distractions, and making sure that everyone pitches in to do their fair share of the work all increase the value of family dinners. (Probably not coincidentally, these are some of the same factors that made families feel so great about their meals during COVID. Help with cooking and cleanup especially seemed to go a long way towards creating happier family dynamics!)

So is family dinner worth the stress? I think so. But based on these findings, I’m going to allow myself to feel a little more relaxed about the nights we just can’t seem to get it together – and focus more on creating a more leisurely, connected atmosphere on the nights we can. Oh, and knowing that having a balanced workload contributes to the value of family meals will come in handy, too. It’s definitely time for me to take another look at the chore chart!


Slow cooker meals like this Herbed Dijon Chicken from our friends at The Zen of Slow Cooking can really help lower dinnertime stress.

Slow Cooker Herbed Dijon Chicken


It’s almost Halloween! Enjoy these ideas for spooky season family dinner fun.

At-Home Halloween Fun


If dinner feels stressful, this might be a good time to reflect on what you and your family get out of your shared meals. Try these conversation starters to help you get back to the meaning of mealtime.