Time and time again, we’ve been told that family dinner really matters. There are so many studies that show a strong correlation between regular family dinners and everything from having better relationships with their current and future families to being more likely to go to college and have a stable job.
But how do we make sure family dinner happens? How do we get good food on the table and get everyone sitting around that table simultaneously? How do we keep dinner time from being a chaotic and frustrating time where little kids are making a mess and refusing to eat and older kids are complaining about the food and giving in to the magnetic pull of their smartphones? If we can get everyone sitting around the table together, eating somewhat peacefully, what should we talk about?
Here are some simple ideas that can help!
- Menu Planning: When I plan out our dinners on Sunday, I find that things go pretty well. I have a list of meals that are quick and involve ingredients I usually have on hand and I have some cookbooks (both online and hard-copy) that I love. On Sundays, I choose a couple tried-and-true easy meals from my list and choose some recipes from my cookbooks and come up with dinner menus for the week (assigning easy tried-and-true dinners and crock-pot meals for the busy nights and choosing some new, fun recipes for evenings when there will be more time – usually Wednesday and Sunday).
- Shopping: After figuring out the menu, I look through the fridge and pantry and make a list of ingredients I’ll need then I usually shop on Monday. In addition to buying things I’ll need for that week’s planned meals, I re-stock the items I like to always have on hand for quick meals and snacks (pasta, pasta sauce, frozen chicken, rice, chicken broth, cheese, bread, baby carrots, apples, cucumbers, etc.)
- Preparation: I often put dinner in the crockpot or do other kinds of prep (like cutting up onions and veggies, getting meat out to thaw, etc.) right after breakfast so things won’t be rushed and stressful before dinner. Then I try to arrange my schedule so that I’ll have the right amount of time to get things cooked and ready before dinner time.
- Involve your children: Kids can be great helpers in the kitchen if you make it positive and fun for them. Your attitude makes all the difference. Try something like this with a 5-10 year old – “Hey, I think you’re old enough to do an important part of our dinner tonight. Would you like to peel and press the garlic or measure out the spices and put them in?” Kids are flattered by responsibility and they love to use cool gadgets and learn to do new things like chopping onions or measuring spices. It can take longer and be more complicated to involve your children but it can be really fun and meaningful to work with them in the kitchen and they can become truly helpful with a little instruction and practice. Also, if your kids are actively helping make dinner, they won’t be whining about being hungry or complaining about the finished product which they helped to create.
- Dinner Time: It’s important to have a set time for dinner. When you don’t have a set time, it’s easy to wind up having dinner pretty late and then everyone is grumpy and things are rushed and stressful. Our dinner time is 6pm. Often one of the kids or my husband isn’t home by 6 so we’re somewhat flexible but everyone knows they need to keep me posted if they’re running late and dinner will be on the table and they need to be here by 6:30. If you don’t get to the dinner table in a timely way, you don’t get to eat.
- Try Everything: In our family, it’s always been a rule that we don’t say stuff like “I don’t like this” or “This is gross.” It’s OK to say “This isn’t my favorite.” Everyone can choose whether they have a lot or a little of each menu item. From the time they were babies, we have matter-of-factly explained that we always try everything and it’s worked for us. I know many people really struggle with picky eaters and that’s a subject for another post but I’ve heard from many parents that the simple choice of having a lot or a little of each menu item works quite well and that when children help prepare the food and choose the amount that goes on their plate, they are more apt to eat what’s on their plate without a lot of fuss.
- Phones at the Table: We have a strict no-phones-at-the-table rule. Everyone’s phones go on the fireplace mantle in the dining room at dinner time. Some families have a phone basket they pass around to gather in the phones. The only exception is that everyone can have their phone when we’re going over the calendar for the week or if we need to look something up quickly.
- Eat Politely: At the dinner table, we chew with our mouths closed, we don’t talk with food in our mouths, we eat fork-sized bites (I’m glad you can’t see the huge bites my 17-year-old son tries to get away with sometimes – then the gross open-mouthed chewing that happens when so much food is shoved in there! We’ve been working on fork-sized bites with him and he’s getting better…), we thoroughly chew our food, we don’t gulp, we say excuse me if we burp, we don’t reach over each other’s plates to grab something, we politely ask for food to be passed to us. Eating politely may not be the most popular or common thing these days but it’s an old fashioned value we believe is worth preserving!
- Listen and Speak politely: We look at the person who is talking and pay attention to them. We don’t interrupt. We respond to the person talking in a positive way. We give answers that are a sentence or more long – not one-word answers. We ask questions as well as answering them.
A generation or two ago, dinner time was called “Dinner Hour” and it involved sitting around the table together for about an hour, eating in a leisurely manner and enjoying good conversation. Today, many people eat in front of the TV or eat in their cars or if they do eat around the dinner table, many families find that they’re just eating quickly and heading their separate ways. Simply eating at the same table does bring real benefits for families because they wind up talking more than they would without sitting down to dinner together. But the deeper benefits come when we sit down together for at least a half hour when possible and when we are deliberate about what we talk about around the dinner table.
- Sweet, Sour and Service: When the kids were little, we would go around the dinner table and have each person share their “Sweet, Sour and Service.” They’d talk about something happy that happened that day (their sweet), something hard that happened that day (their sour) and something nice they did for someone else that day. This was a simple way to check in with each other and encourage kids to look for the good, learn about the hard stuff kids experience and help kids seek out and report on opportunities to help others. We still do Sweet, Sour and Service at the dinner table sometimes and it’s still a great way to check in with each other.
- Speeches: When I was growing up, one night a week, my parents would have each of us kids stand up and give a one minute speech on a given topic. They taught us that a good speech should have a strong introduction, a story or example, and a strong conclusion that can include a challenge. Sometimes we got to pick the topic for each other and sometimes my parents chose the topic. Topics were really simple – anything from “why door knobs are important” to “why it’s good to be help others.” It was a great exercise in putting together coherent thoughts on a subject quickly and expressing ourselves clearly!
- Current Events: About once a week, we focus our dinner conversation on what is going on in the news. It used to be that my husband or I would tell the kids a few major news stories from the week and they’d ask questions but now we frequently ask them what they’ve heard about that is going on in the world this week and we talk about what they bring up.
- Memories: We didn’t really plan it this way, but pretty much every Sunday we found that we’d end up lingering at the dinner table extra long and my husband and I would get into stories from our youth and the early years of our family. So we’ve decided to make a point of having a night a week when we bring up some interesting stuff from when we were growing up and the kids often bring up questions that lead to further stories. They have been surprised and delighted to learn about everything from how we managed before cell phones and the internet to crazy predicaments we got ourselves into during high school and college to funny things they said and did when they were little.
- Conversation Starters: We recently bought a box full of cards with dinnertime conversation starters on them but you could just brainstorm some questions with your family and have that list handy at dinner time. It’s nice to include serious and fun questions. Here are a few sample questions:
- What do you remember about kindergarten?
- Who are your best friends right now and what do you like about them?
- If someone gave you $1000 right now, what would you do with it?
- What do you think you’ll be doing in 5 years? In 10 years?
- What is your favorite song right now and why?
- What do you think is the best thing about being in our family? What’s hard about being in our family?
- Who are some of your heroes?
- Guests: We all know people who our kids could learn from, right? Why not invite them to dinner? Kids’ behavior is typically much better when we have a guest for dinner. If we prep our kids by telling them about the guest in advance, they can prepare some questions and it can be a great opportunity to learn. My sister is great about having guests for dinner and along with specific questions that relate to that person’s life interests and abilities, they usually ask “What is something naughty or dangerous you did when you were growing up?” It usually results in some very funny stories and/or important cautionary tales! This year, we’re going to work on having dinner guests once a month and the kids have helped us come with with people they want to invite – everyone from a favorite teacher to a neighbor who is a concert pianist.
I’m sure most people reading this have further ideas – please share them in the comments below!
Writing this has really helped me to renew my resolve to make our dinner times great this year and I hope this will be helpful to you as well. I wish you the very best as you create family dinner traditions that work for your family!