- It creates a moment of peace and stability during what is often a busy and stressful time. (Moms in particular are shown to benefit from these de-stressing benefits.) Nobody said you have to be sitting at the table together for an hour every night. Even just 15-20 minutes of together time can bring those benefits.
- The whole family is more likely to eat healthy when you make dinner yourself and eat it at home. That’s just common sense.
- More common sense: it saves money. Period. (Unless you really are eating cereal every night for dinner, which I hope you aren’t!)
- Research shows that eating family dinners at least five times a week has been linked to drastically lower levels of smoking, drinking, and drug use in teens. (Wow!) It’s suggested that the parental engagement that happens at the dinner table is what helps prevent those behaviors.
- A study cited by CNN also showed that “of the teens who eat with their family fewer than three times a week, 20% got C’s or lower on their report cards. Only 9% of teens who eat frequently with their families do this poorly in school.” (Gulp. How’s that for motivation?)
Another solid option that has worked really well for me (though it doesn’t necessarily ensure everyone will like what you choose) is to use a meal planning service or app such as eMeals.com which allows you to choose a meal plan (everything from paleo to 30-minute-meals to kid-friendly) and then, with one simple click, gives you a week of dinner options, a categorized shopping list, and step-by-step instructions for every single recipe. (Are you kidding me?) Some other great options I looked into are CookSmarts, Relish, and Plan to Eat. Another one I’ve tried recently that has budgeting specifically in mind is Deals to Meals. Yes, most of these services have a one time or recurring fee, but it so, so worth it. I literally spend five minutes a week meal planning. Priceless.
Prepare dinner in the morning. This idea seemed ridiculous to me when all my children were small and I was home with them all day long. But now that they are all in school and our afternoons and evenings are often spent in the car or working on homework, getting dinner started in the morning, when I’m already in the kitchen preparing breakfast and sack lunches, makes perfect sense. (Case in point: I’m writing this at 11:00am and dinner is already in the crockpot.) Get the meat out of the freezer. Pre-cut some veggies. Get the pasta pot full of water and put it on the stovetop. Doing just a few of those little steps in the morning can really take the edge off when that witching hour rolls around and everyone is “starving.”
Schedule dinner. This is a tough one if you’ve got lots of after-school activities going on, but it is so worth it. Treat the dinner hour like any other appointment instead of thinking you’ll just “squeeze it in.” If you’ve got so many after school activities that you can’t fit in family dinner at least three nights during the week, you might want to think about cutting some things out. Setting a specific time for dinner (even if it has to change from day to day depending on those after-school activities) will make it an automatic priority. Post a schedule if needed so that your family knows when they can depend on a good (or good enough) meal to be ready.
Get the kids involved. If you’ve already included them in choosing the dinners for the week, you’re in pretty good shape; but it’s even better to get them helping with the cooking and the clean-up. Assign a “cook of the day” for each day of the week and rotate through the kids who are old enough to help. There are so many benefits to doing this: 1) You get one-on-one time with your child. 2) They learn to cook over the years in a relaxed and natural atmosphere. 3) You get that second set of hands you most definitely need. 4) The “cook of the day” can be an advocate for the dinner on the table if the other children start to complain.
At our house, everyone also has one thing to do to get the table ready for dinner (place mats and napkins, utensils, drinks, and condiments), someone volunteers to be the “waiter” or “waitress” since I like to to serve up by the stove and take plates back to the table, and then there are clean up jobs as well (clearing the table, wiping the table and chairs, sweeping under the table, garbage, and of course, dishes). In theory, no one leaves the kitchen until it’s completely clean.
Keep it real. You aren’t going to make an elaborate homemade dinner every night of the week; it’s just not gonna happen. Plan on leftovers or a simple crockpot meal on that weeknight when everyone is going in different directions. Every Saturday can be a pizza or take-out night. Grab a pre-made salad, some rolls, and a rotisserie chicken or some other easy heat-and-eat option from the grocery store if you know you aren’t going to be able to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. The goal is not an elaborate, homemade meal that includes all four food groups; the goal is to sit down as a family and enjoy both physical and emotional food together. If mom is stressing out and not getting dinner on the table until 7:30, that totally defeats the purpose.
Connect and converse. So now you’re all sitting down at the table together, but what is there to talk about? If dinnertime conversations sometimes drag at your house, you can find lots of fun ideas by looking up “family dinner conversation starters” online. A friend recently gave our family a set of “Chowtime Chat” placemats, and we are loving them. With kids ranging in age from 8-18 and a 26-year-old nephew who is living with us, we get into some pretty animated, opinionated, and hysterical discussions. It’s honestly the highlight of my day. In a world that is becoming increasingly disconnected as we become more technologically connected, creating space in the day to see our family members eye-to-eye and talk with them on an emotional level is invaluable. (Oh, yeah, that’s another thing: NO PHONES ALLOWED AT THE DINNER TABLE!)