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Newsletter: March 2024

Is it the Family, Or the Dinner?

“Oh, we never eat together. It’s such a waste of time and energy. Nobody likes the same things, our schedules are crazy, the kids have a million activities, and we hate to cook anyway. Not worth it. We get lots of quality time together in the car when we’re driving them around 24/7!”

The parent who made this comment to me is a great person I like a lot. She also has one of the busiest family schedules I’ve ever seen, and her kids are generally regarded as “really accomplished” because of the depth and breadth of the activities that ensure that schedule stays jam-packed. I’m absolutely sure that they do spend many hours closely confined together while carpooling here, there, and everywhere, and yes, they probably do talk to each other along the way.

I’m always glad when families are happy with the lifestyle and routine they’ve built, but as a family dinner enthusiast, I have to admit that it tends to surprise me when people tell me they think shared meals are a waste of time. I try to exercise my best self-control to keep from jumping in and telling them how great I think family dinner can be – if they aren’t asking, it’s not my business! And with an awesome family like the one in question, I really have to examine my own biases. They’re happy and healthy and the kids are growing into terrific people. So what does it matter whether they eat together?

I realized that the question I was really asking myself here was the same question countless people have brought to The Family Dinner Project over the years: Is it really that shared dinners are so important to the well-being of a family? Or is it more likely that the kind of family who would bother having dinner together in the first place will tend to be well and happy? To pin down an answer, I decided to talk to Dr. Anne Fishel about existing research on the topic.

Our full conversation about this question – is it the family, or the dinner, that makes the difference? – is contained in the latest episode of our Family Dinner Project Podcast. Here are just a few of the highlights:

  • To understand the answer, you have to understand how research is conducted. Dr. Fishel helped me grasp the differences between cross-sectional, longitudinal, and randomized studies, and illustrated how each type of research has shed light on the potential benefits of family dinners over the years.
  • The frequency of the interaction isn’t quite as important as the quality of the time you spend together. Even if you can only eat together once a week, research suggests that just one shared meal can make a difference in your family’s social and emotional well-being – as long as that meal is enjoyable and relaxed. Stressful, tense interactions at family meals aren’t likely to get you anywhere. That makes me wonder about car conversations and other rushed interactions throughout the week; if hurried, stressed-out family meals aren’t that great for you, what about all those distracted miles when we’re bothered by traffic or preoccupied with the events of the day? In the end, you’ll get more mileage out of your interactions (pun intended) if you’re able to really focus on each other, be present, and make it pleasant for everyone. Maybe it’s time to try a Friday pizza night or Sunday pancake breakfast in between all the carpooling!
  • The strength of the family unit matters, but dinner does extra. If you’re already a family who enjoys each other’s company and has lots of other positive behaviors, adding some shared meals to your routine is likely to give a boost to your efforts. But even if you’re not a close family and you don’t often spend time together, the simple act of eating together can increase your bond and help you achieve some of the mental, physical, social, and academic benefits of family meals.

Those are just a few of the points Dr. Fishel and I covered during our conversation; the rest of it is well worth listening to if you’re wondering at all about the benefits of shared meals. You can check out the episode, with transcript and show notes, here, or listen wherever you get your podcasts. We’ll be back with another episode in May, so stay tuned!


If you’re looking for a way to entice your family to gather for a meal, these baked nachos are a fun and endlessly customizable meal idea!

Build Your Own Baked Nachos



Put a spin on the classic 20 Questions game by focusing on family memories!

20 Questions (About a Family Memory)


Make your next family dinner an extra fun bonding experience with our Dinner and a Movie ideas to celebrate Women’s History Month!

Dinner and a Movie: Women’s History Month