by Anne Fishel, Ph.D
Dr. Anne K. Fishel is a co-founder of The Family Dinner Project and a clinical psychologist, teacher, author, and family therapist. She is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Dr. Fishel is the author of several published works, including, Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids. Her most recent book is A Life-Cycle Approach to Treating Couples: From Dating to Death.
The Importance of Eating Together
Why should we eat dinner together more often?
Most American families are starved for time to spend together, and dinner may be the only time of the day when we can reconnect, leaving behind our individual pursuits like playing video games, emailing and doing homework. Dinner is a time to relax, recharge, laugh, tell stories and catch up on the day’s ups and downs, while developing a sense of who we are as a family.
Do family dinners have any scientific benefits?
Over the past 20 years researchers have confirmed what parents have known for a long time: Sharing a family meal is good for the spirit, the brain and the health of all family members. Recent studies link regular family dinners with many behaviors that parents pray for: lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression, as well as higher grade-point averages and self-esteem. Studies also indicate that for young children, dinner conversation is a more potent vocabulary-booster than reading, and the stories told around the kitchen table help our children build resilience. The icing on the cake is that regular family meals also lower the rates of obesity and eating disorders in children and adolescents. What else can families do that takes only about an hour a day and packs such a punch?
We’re just so busy. How can we find the time to cook and eat together?
Time is certainly one of the biggest obstacles to families gathering for dinner, but so is thinking that the meal has to be cooked from scratch, made with organic ingredients, and labored over for hours. Quick, easy meals are just as good as gourmet ones. The main benefits come when the food arrives at the table and everyone can spend time together. One good strategy is to cook a big batch of soup or a double batch of a casserole over the weekend, and then freeze some to make weekday dinners easier. Some meals can be thrown together quickly with help from store-bought ingredients, like pre-cut veggies, or a pre-made pizza dough. There are also many recipes that take less than 15 minutes. Please see the Food section of our website for more ideas.
If you think of family dinner as a time to nourish your family, prevent all kinds of problems, increase your children’s cognitive abilities, and provide pleasure and fun that they can build on for the rest of their lives, a nightly meal is an efficient use of time.
What IS a family dinner?
Parents often wonder what “counts” as a family dinner and what they need to do to reap the benefits of eating meals together. These are some questions I’ve been asked at community dinners and in my family therapy practice:
What if only one parent is home for dinner?
As long as there are two family members eating together, talking, and enjoying one another, that is a family dinner. It could also be an uncle or a grandma!
What if it is take-out?
If the meal is eaten with conversation and storytelling, that is what makes a family dinner. The only caveat is that a take-out dinner may not have the same nutritional value as a home-cooked meal, since restaurant food tends to be higher in fat, salt, and sugar.
What if the TV is on?
Research suggests that kids tend to eat more calories and fewer vegetables and fruits when the TV is on. Making a steady diet of eating family dinners in front of the TV would certainly interfere with the pleasures and benefits of conversation. But, when a family occasionally watches a TV program during dinner, or watches the news together, that can lead to conversations beyond what went on at school today.
What if we can only pull off having dinner once a week but the research says that it should be five times a week? Should we just forget about it?
No! Often when families have one great meal or one “good enough” meal, they find that they want to have more of them. Even one positive dinner a week can be very beneficial to a family.
Does it have to be dinner?
In any week, there are at least 16 possible times for families to eat together—7 breakfasts, 7 dinners, and two weekend lunches. In addition, a night-time snack when parents and children take a break together and eat fruit and hot chocolate, for example, can be another chance to connect and laugh together. The goal is not to achieve a magic number but to find as many opportunities as you can and to make the most of them.
Food and Cooking
As long as we sit together and eat, does it really matter what we’re eating?
I think it’s hard to argue with the idea that feeding your family nutritious food is a good idea! This not only makes your children healthier as they grow right now, but it encourages healthy eating once they are living on their own. Some families enjoy experimenting with different menus, others like keeping a routine so that Monday night is for pasta, Tuesday for tortillas and so on. Some children like to share in the menu planning and the cooking, so the food becomes a central part of the family’s identity. For other families, the food is really secondary to other aspects of the meal, like the conversation and fun.
How much help should I reasonably expect from my family in preparing dinner? In cleaning up? Do I have to do this all myself?
Most children like to help and should be encouraged to do so. The trick is figuring out which tasks are developmentally right for your child. Even young children can be asked to sprinkle a seasoning, stir a stew, or rinse vegetables. Elementary-aged kids can set and clear the table, pour the drinks and be involved in some food preparation.
Many adolescents view cooking as an avenue of self-expression and may relish the idea of making a meal or a portion of a meal. Sharing in all the tasks of dinner—grocery shopping, menu planning, cooking, serving and cleaning up—only makes this more of a family event. If someone is feeling overburdened, the roles and tasks should be reexamined and distributed more equitably. Everyone’s dinner will be enhanced by more members contributing and by no single member feeling resentful.
What types of meals should I make to get my kids more involved in dinner?
Prepare a meal that gives kids something to do. For example, my children loved to pull the basil leaves off their stems. To make a quick pesto sauce, we’d put them into a food processor with a clove of garlic, salt, Parmesan cheese and olive oil. Any meal that calls for ingredients that kids can peel, mash, or sprinkle is a good one.
Simple dishes that kids can customize also encourage participation. Parents might make crepes, tacos, or even a pot of chicken rice soup, which kids can add their favorite toppings to, like chopped carrots or peppers, roasted garlic or sliced cheese.
It’s also fun to choose foods that are brightly colored, like the colors in their crayon boxes. This is eye-catching and makes dinner preparation even more interesting.
Tips for Conversation
What are some conversation suggestions for younger children?
Even if they’re unable to have longer conversations, younger kids like to be included in dinnertime chit chat. Sometimes, a simple “What did you do today?” will result in fun answers about what the child saw on a walk or did during playtime. Asking kids to describe their favorite games, cartoons, or toys will also spark their interest and generate engaged responses. You might ask, “What can your favorite toy or cartoon character do that you’d like to do?”
Additionally, images and photos are great conversation starters. If you have a photo that you don’t mind getting messy, try bringing it to the dinner table and asking your child to describe what he or she sees. If it’s a family photo, the child may ask who’s in the picture and what they’re doing. This could lead to a fun discussion about different family members and their lives.
Children love telling and hearing about stories of their parents, grandparents and their ancestry. You could also try kicking off a story with one of the following questions:
- “Do you know the story about how your parents met?”
- “Do you know how your name was chosen, or how your parents’ names were chosen?
- “Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences they had during their childhood?”
- “Do you know some of the jobs that your parents had when they were young?”
- “What is the earliest story you know about an ancestor?”
Our one-line conversation starters are also great for kids this age. Asking your child, “If you could be an animal, what would you want to be, and why?” is a wonderful way to begin a lively exchange.
Do you have any conversation ideas for children ages 9-13?
This is a great age for conversation, since kids are able to hold longer discussions and think about more complex issues. We have plenty of conversation starters for this age group, too. Asking your child, “If you had three wishes, what would they be?” is bound to create some interesting responses.
Kids also enjoy telling stories, particularly about their experiences or interests. After asking about a child’s day at school, a parent might try to piggyback off their response. For example, if a child tells a story about not getting a part in a play, a parent may want to tell a story about a setback he faced and what he learned from it. Stories that start out with something negative but end up positively are associated with greater feelings of life satisfaction.
Discussing historical figures or people who are currently famous can also be fun. Which public figure does your daughter or son admire most? If they could meet anyone throughout history, who would it be? For more questions like these, check out our “Inspiration” conversation starters.
Finally, try conducting “family interviews.” It can be startling how little we know about the daily lives of our family members!
I always run out of things to talk about with my teenager. How can I get past “I’m fine”?
It can be a challenge to get teenagers involved in family dinner discussions. Many of our one-line conversation starters are fabulous for helping them open up, including, “What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever eaten?” and “Did anyone read anything interesting online or in the newspaper today?”
Teenagers also enjoy discussing public figures they like, including sports heroes, artists, actors, and politicians. If your teenager could have one person over for dinner (living or dead), who would it be? What would they talk about? What would they serve?
Presenting a morally ambiguous or thought-provoking situation is a great way to spark conversation. Present one of our “Conversations of the Week” at dinner, and ask your teenagers to give their opinion. There’s often not a clear “right” or “wrong” answer, so these should generate some interesting debates.
Additionally, it’s often helpful to speak about your own experiences of the day in a way that is honest and self-disclosing, perhaps revealing something that was embarrassing or challenging. This will provoke your son or daughter into honestly sharing their own experiences. You might even repeat a joke that you heard at work, in order to lighten the mood.
Last but certainly not least, you might try asking your teenagers about their favorite films, inventions, or music. Our “Thoughts and Opinions” conversation starters can help your teens open up about likes, dislikes, and opinions on a variety of topics.
Games and Activity Ideas
What are some fun games and dinner activities for younger children?
Younger kids (ages 2-7) love guessing games. Try playing a round of I-Spy, giving each family member an opportunity to “spy” something on the dinner table, while the other family members guess what it is. Your children might also enjoy our “Can You Remember?” game. Have them close their eyes, and ask them if they can remember what their surroundings looked like (“What color was my shirt? How many dishes are on the table?”). Games like “Which One?” are great for anyone who likes to play 20 questions. For a more food-oriented guessing game, ask your children guess the ingredients in your meals. To make this game even more engaging, you could add a “secret” ingredient to the meal, like vanilla or paprika. This is a fun way to get kids thinking about food and how it’s prepared.
Try exploring mystery foods. Take your children to the supermarket and ask them to pick out a fruit or vegetable they’ve never seen before or never eaten at home. Years ago, my kids picked out a coconut, and we spent a whole afternoon trying to figure out how to open it. After taking hammers and chisels to it, we finally cleared out the street below and hurled it from a third-floor window. You may fare better by googling a new food for ideas about how to prepare it, or by checking epicurious.com for recipe suggestions.
You might also want to play with color and taste in different ways. Ask your kids to think up a menu in all one color and then help you make it. Or, ask your kids to think up a menu that has all five tastes- bitter, sweet, sour, salty and umami and help you make it.
Another fun idea is to make a restaurant out of your meal. Turn your kitchen over to the kids and ask them to make dinner for you. They may need help finding recipes that are appropriate to their age, and you will likely have to shop for them or with them. But, on their own they can create a menu and transform the kitchen or dining room into a restaurant. In a role reversal, you and your children will enjoy having them take your orders, bring the food to the table, and serve you.
Finally, if your family has a favorite board game, try incorporating it into dinner for Family Game Night. Appetizers and finger foods can serve as dinner that night, creating a fun, flexible atmosphere.
Do you have any fun game suggestions for tweens and teens?
Games and activities can be a great way to make dinner more exciting. For tweens and teens who like to tell stories, try our Story Starters activity. Going around the table, each family member adds a few sentences to a story, allowing the family to write a tale together. The story can start off as simply as, “Once upon a time, there was a boy who lived in a small house” or “Once upon a time, there was a girl who liked to climb trees.”
“Two Truths and a Tall Tale” is another creative game that often provides hilarious conversation. Each family member tells three stories about their day or about themselves, only one of which is true. Everyone must guess which stories are real and which one is invented.
You could even create a literary event out of your meal. Have you ever noticed how many foods are introduced in children’s books? I’m thinking about maple syrup on snow in The Little House in the Big Woods, the pomegranates in the Greek myth of Persephone, and the Turkish Delight in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. You can make foods with your children from some of their favorite books, and then read them aloud while they dig in.
If you want to add a fun challenge to your dinner, try Iron Chef: Family Edition. For this activity, one family member selects 2 or 3 ingredients, and another person devises a menu around them. For example, the sample ingredients might be: pasta, a vegetable, and an herb. Teens who like to cook will appreciate the challenge of having to devise a menu and will feel a sense of pride when they present their dishes to the family.
Common Dinnertime Challenges
Whenever we all get together, we argue. How can I prevent this atmosphere from taking over the dinner table?
Some families argue about particular topics, like messy rooms or a recent science grade. Agreeing to avoid those topics during dinner will decrease fighting during mealtime. Other families just seem to argue as a way of communicating with one another. In such a case, you may want to set certain ground rules. For example, each member has to wait to talk until he or she is holding a particular object, like a seashell, and anyone who raises his or her voice will agree to take a “time out” and calm down before returning to the table. Adults will need to set a good example by trying not to interrupt, and by asking questions rather than arguing with something said.
It’s very important to us that our children grow up with good table manners. How can we teach good manners and not make the atmosphere at dinner uncomfortable?
If you focus on one priority at a time, you won’t let the teaching of good manners dominate the atmosphere. Focusing on those manners that help build respectful speaking and listening, like not speaking with your mouth full or not talking over anyone, seem like a good place to start. Those manners are ones that parents can also try to improve themselves, which will make kids feel less scrutinized.
My children and/or my spouse are texting at the table, and it drives me crazy. How can I ask them to stop without driving them away?
You could ask them to try a no-texting experiment for a week or two to see if the conversation and atmosphere at the table is different for them as well as for you. Or, you could ask that they only use their phones to facilitate conversation, for example, looking up a movie time, defining a word, or settling a dispute, like who won the World Series in 1985.
My child is a picky eater. What should I do to encourage her to try different foods?
The best strategy to prevent picky eating is for parents to model their own enjoyment of foods they are offering their kids at the dinner table. Serving food “family style” in bowls or platters placed on the table allows children to see the adults enjoying a food that the kids can just reach out and try.
The best professional advice I ever heard was from a nutritionist, Ellyn Satter who suggests that it is a parent’s job to decide what healthy food to serve, as well as when and where it’s going to be eaten. But, it is up to the child to decide whether and how much to eat.
In general, the less said about how much or how little is being eaten, the better. The worst strategy is for parents to pressure their kids to eat or to restrict foods. If you want your child to try new foods, you shouldn’t tell them they can’t have dessert unless they eat all their vegetables. Another common mistake is for parents to give up too easily if a child refuses a new food. Researchers have found that children may need eight to 15 offerings of new foods before they decide they like the food. No wonder so many children are deemed “picky eaters” when so many parents give up trying to interest a child in a novel food after one or two attempts.
My children are too young to sit still for long meals. How can I get them to stay put?
It’s important to keep your expectations realistic. Toddlers shouldn’t be expected to sit for more than 10 or 15 minutes, and some may be done in five minutes. Better to have a happy, short dinner that you can build on as your child matures, than to make dinner a time with a lot of rules and fights. Here are some strategies that have been helpful to families with young kids:
- Make clear that “meal sitting” is different from “school sitting.” So, for example, everyone might wear PJs, or you might play music during the meal.
- Give your kids ice pops made with fresh juice after they’ve eaten their meals: It will take young kids about five minutes to finish one pop.
- Invite your child to stir a pot, crumble the cheese, set the timer or choose a menu from two choices offered. Having a hand in making the meal creates pride of ownership, and that may make them stay at the table longer.
- Avoid having a revolving door at the dinner table. If your child wants to leave the table, allow this only once or twice. After two departures, the child should know that dinnertime is over. This is different from forcing a child to sit but takes away any positive reinforcement derived from leaving the table.
- Present each part of the meal as a course, for example, peas as an appetizer, pasta with pesto sauce as the main course and orange slices for dessert. Maybe your child can help clear and bring on each course so that you are harnessing a child’s activity in the service of the meal. For example, “While you’re up, would you get the water pitcher?”
How do I keep my teenagers interested in family dinners, when there are so many activities pulling them away?
You may be surprised to learn that when teenagers are asked about the importance of family dinners, they rate them very high on their list of priorities. So, you should assume that your kids want to have dinner with you. If they don’t, start by asking what would make dinnertime more pleasant for them. Here are some strategies that have been helpful to other parents with teenagers:
- Agree that dinner will be off limits for discussing conflicts—no talk about homework, whose turn it is to take out the trash, a recent D on a math quiz or how late the curfew should be on Friday night.
- Offer to make a new meal based on your teen’s interests—if he is studying South African history or Indian literature, check out epicurious.com and search for recipes by country.
- Invite your kid to make a course or part of the meal, particularly something fairly quick (but special and dramatic) that will elicit oohs and ahs from the rest of the family. Popovers, banana flambé, and fruit smoothies all do the trick.
- Create a weekly dinner ritual when your kids’ friends are invited to dinner or to dessert. For example, on a tired Sunday night, friends could be invited to come over and make sundaes.
- You might also ask your teen to choose music for you to listen to during dinner. This will also give you something to talk about that is likely of great interest to your child.