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Newsletter: April 2021

Teens at the Dinner Table

“Why bother trying to have family dinner? They’d rather be on their phones than talk to us anyway!”

The idea that teenagers (and even tweens) don’t want to eat dinner with the family is a common one. But despite appearances, most teens do enjoy family meals. Research from CASA Columbia (now the Partnership to End Addiction) shows that 80 percent of adolescents want to eat with their families more often. 80 percent! That’s surely not what parents of moody, independence-seeking kids think when they’re trying to convince everyone to put down their phones and come to the table.

“Of any age group, teens may have the most to gain from eating dinner with their families,” Dr. Anne Fishel writes in her article Making the Most of Dinner with Adolescents. “Dinners can protect teens from engaging in a host of risky behaviors: smoking, drinking, getting pregnant, developing an eating disorder, and using drugs. Teens who dine with their families also report experiencing less overall stress, feeling more known by their parents, and having better relationships with them.”

If teens want to eat with their families, and it’s important to make sure that they’re able to do so, how can parents overcome the obstacles that too often stand in the way of those meaningful mealtimes? Here are some top suggestions, from teens and parents of teens!

If it seems like your teens are too busy for dinner:

  • Explore sharing a meal at other times of day. For example, Brenda Thompson tries to make it a priority to sit with her teens while they have breakfast. “Sometimes it’s only 5-10 minutes, but it keeps our lines of communication open!”
    Check out our great ideas for family breakfasts — perfect for busy weekdays!
  • Schedule family dinner just like you’d schedule any other calendar event. When the Lorenz family realized they were only able to gather their teens at dinner one night a week due to sports, school and work commitments, they started treating that dinner as a family appointment. “Make Sunday dinners important, and be firm about this. No exceptions unless someone is out of town.”
  • Flex the social life around dinner, not dinner around the social life. Debra Darvick wanted her teens home on Friday nights for the family’s weekly Shabbat dinners, but the teens wanted to go out with friends. So the Darvick family rule became dinner first, social life after. To give the kids a little bit of choice in the matter, Debra created “Get out of dinner free” passes, which her teenagers could turn in five times per year. (Spoiler alert: they rarely did!)
    Teen advocate Lauren Cole urges her peers to think about family time before making plans. “Although spending time with your friends is important, so is time with your family members. Let’s say you have late band practices on Tuesday, your sibling has soccer on Wednesday and Friday night you usually go out with your friends. This means Monday and Thursday are the only open weekdays you have off. Instead of spending all of Thursday evening at your BFF’s house, come home and have a meal with your family.”

If it seems like your teens don’t want to talk to you:

  • Don’t force it! Denise Walter’s daughter, Grace, never wanted to talk at dinnertime — so Denise started the “neverending Uno game” during dinner instead.Grace says the games “make the time more fun and interesting.” Denise says they relax Grace enough to open up and connect while she’s playing.
  • Structure the interaction. We’re constantly amazed by the number of families who tell us they use “Rose and Thorn” or some variation on the game to get their teens talking at dinner. In the Nogueira family, it’s such a longstanding tradition that even teenager Noah’s friends look forward to playing when they come over for dinner. And in the Carr household, as the kids have gotten older, they’ve started a new type of “Rose and Thorn” called “Flex, Contemplation, and Defeat” to help them share both embarrassments and points of pride in a safe, structured way.
    Find more teen-friendly dinner games here!
  • Start with your own stories. Debi Lewis and her husband find that opening up about their own lives prompts their kids to do the same — and offering a chance to talk about meaningful topics. “A mention of a challenge at work for my husband or I can create the chance to model healthy responses to stress or conflict. A story about a classmate’s bad attitude can remind us all to think about what might be happening in the rest of that student’s life, prompting us to lead with compassion. It’s so much easier to talk about these kinds of things when they come up organically.”

If it seems like your teens are resisting all attempts at connection:

  • Try changing the location. Melanie Shapiro realized that her kids were much more enthusiastic about dinnertime, and more willing to talk and connect, if they weren’t at home with devices and distractions around. Her solution was to go out to dinner with them twice a week, which allowed everyone to relax and focus on each other. But you don’t need to eat out — even just moving from a sit-down dinner at the table to a backyard picnic, or pizza on the couch every Friday, could open things up.
  • Evaluate your topics. The Bakers had to learn not to bring up potentially sensitive subjects at dinner, because their teen daughters were easily embarrassed. “I really like not talking about family issues,” one of the girls shared later. “That would ruin the meal and I do not like my meals ruined.”
  • Compromise on technology. Some families, like the Geller-Pynes, find that their mealtimes can be just as enjoyable — and lower-pressure for the teens in the household — if they sometimes watch a TV show or movie while they eat. Other families might allow phones and tablets at the table as long as they’re being used to enhance conversation or to play a game, not to avoid interacting with the family.
    Get Dinner and a Movie ideas to help you successfully incorporate screen time into family meals!

In the end, family dinner with teens isn’t about perfection — it’s about being flexible and understanding, so you can keep fostering the connections that will last as they grow. While it may take some patience and creativity, eating dinner with teenagers can be a fun and rewarding experience for the whole family.

Family of the Month

We’re taking a look back at the inspirational story of Gabriela Townsend, a teen who was inspired by The Family Dinner Project to make over her own family dinners — and those of her classmates!

Real Family Dinner Projects: The Townsend Family


Open faced caprese sandwich

These teen-created Open-Faced Caprese Sandwiches are a quick and delicious dinner idea!

Open-Faced Caprese Sandwiches


Let teens’ love of technology work for you, not against you. Play Google Feud at family dinner to put devices to good use!

Google Feud


Our Top 20 conversation starters for teens can be a good place to start if you’re having a tough time getting past one-word answers!