We love family dinner for a lot of reasons, but especially because of the opportunity to relax and bond with each other. It’s a reliable time of day when everyone can gather, catch up with one another, and enjoy good food and conversation before taking care of evening chores, homework and other obligations. So why would we be concerned about managing anxiety at family meals?
The reality is that there are any number of reasons why anxiety might show up to dinner as an uninvited guest. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are fairly common: about 19 percent of adults in the US, and almost 32 percent of teens, experienced an anxiety disorder in the past year alone. And we know that since the pandemic began in 2020, mental health challenges in people of all ages, but especially children, have risen dramatically. That means an awful lot of family meals could be impacted by anxiety.
Besides the statistics, it’s worth recognizing that mealtimes come with a few potential triggers for anxious thoughts or behaviors. A loud, boisterous, stimulating environment at the table might make more introverted or sensitive family members feel anxious. Knowing that there’s likely to be tension, arguing or rigid enforcement of high expectations for behavior can also cause heightened anxiety. For some kids, transition times can be challenging, so stopping an activity to have dinner can cause an anxious reaction. Some people may have experienced distressing experiences at the dinner table, like witnessing an intoxicated, angry parent, or even violence at the table, so that mealtime can trigger anxiety. And food itself can be triggering – whether due to feeding problems, sensory challenges, body dysmorphia or other serious behavioral health issues, the act of eating all on its own might cause an anxious response.
But the good news is that research shows that, much of the time, family meals can actually lower the prevalence of mental health issues in both kids and adults, so dinnertime may be an activity worth keeping on the schedule if you’re hoping to either prevent or reduce the impact of anxiety in your home. Of course, it’s a bit more involved than just putting some food on the table and telling people to sit down and eat it together! Here are some thoughtful tips and tools you can use to manage anxiety at your family dinner table.
Anxiety is a common challenge, and it can impact every aspect of life, including family mealtimes. But there are ways to make shared meals a welcoming, calming part of the day. You’ve got this!
Offer up some customizable comfort food, like this chicken and rice soup that lets everyone add their choice of toppings, for a stress-busting family dinner.
Transition to a peaceful mealtime or disrupt table tension with this calming, sensory-focused activity for all ages.
Focus on self-care with these collections of conversation starters dedicated to mental health, stress management, and more.