In our over-scheduled lives – packed with jobs, playdates, and extracurricular activities – the dinner table has emerged as one of a few, if not the only, place where the full family gathers together each day. Not only a time to swap stories about the day’s adventures, family dinner can also be an opportunity to help hone table manners, establish healthy eating routines, and more. We chatted with the folks on our Kitchen Cabinet about how (and why) they make family meals a priority in their homes.
“One of the pieces of advice I give to every couple getting married or having a baby is to have meals together. We always sat down with the children while they were eating dinner or breakfast even if we were going out to dinner. You can model good eating and encourage them to eat healthy. You can also do a little nutrition education at that time.” – Donna Martin, school nutrition expert
For pediatrician Shale Wong, family dinners are a great time to catch up after busy days and, over the years, her family has made adjustments, like eating later in the evening so that every family member can join regardless of sports schedules or homework assignments, so that family mealtime, and the connection it brings, remains a priority.
But, as professor, physician, and health policy expert Risa Lavizzo-Mourey recognizes, every parent is juggling six things at once and some days 6pm seems to roll around sooner than expected. Her advice?
“Don’t try to make huge, abrupt changes. Instead, be intentional about building healthy eating habits, and build physical activity into your regular routine.”
Family dinner every night may not always be feasible. So the question appears: How bad do I really need to feel about that? For ParentData founder Emily Oster, family dinner is a nonnegotiable, though she is quick to underscore that the benefits tend to be oversold. Ultimately, she explains, what matters is dedicated time to connect with your kid(s) and your family which, yes, can be done over dinner but can also happen in the car to soccer practice, at the park after school, or through a read-aloud before bedtime.
That said, if your schedule allows, an established routine of family dinners are a great practice to encourage connectedness across the full family. Here are a few tips for planning family meals:
- Simplicity is key. Every family meal does not need to rival a Thanksgiving spread to be meaningful. Stick with recipes you are comfortable with and that your family enjoys! The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate Plan is a great resource for planning healthy meals.
- Make it a family affair. Nutrition expert Christina Economos loves practicing a healthy lifestyle with her family. Together, they may grocery shop for an assortment of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and proteins or even visit a local farm to learn more about a variety of produce. From building shopping lists to cooking, setting the table, and helping clean up, everyone can play a part in family meals.
- Keep it light. Family meals should feel like a safe space for every family member to share about their day. Avoid pushing conversation topics or pressing for details when you pick-up on cues that a conversation may be sensitive for some people.
- Keep it phone-free. Family dinner is an opportunity to listen and share about your day. To truly connect with each other, this is a time to disconnect from phones, tablets, and tv.
So, yes. Family dinners are important. (In fact, we think they’re a great family resolution to make in 2024!) But many of the benefits so often traced back to family dinners (better familial relationships or improved academic performance, for example) should not be over credited to a singular shared meal. It’s all about finding time to sit together, chat casually about whatever comes to mind, and to establish that you’re always there to help nourish your kids – both through food and conversation 🙂