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Having Dinner With Your Family

Having Dinner With Your Family

Families who dine at home together are happier and healthier, but work, school, sports practices and other obligations all seem to get in the way.

Whether your family mealtime happens every night or only once a week, in the morning before school or late-night for just dessert, it's important to take advantage of whatever opportunity you have to nourish the mind, soul and stomach of everyone at the table.


205 reads

Plan: The Key Is Togetherness, Not Timing

In the United States about 70 percent of meals are consumed outside the home, and about 20 percent are eaten in the car. About half of American families rarely have family dinner.

Decades of research have shown that children who regularly eat dinner with their families at home do better on a number of health measures.


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Benefits Of Eating With Family

When kids eat with their parents, they are more likely to have:

  • More fruits and vegetables and drink less soda.
  • Lower rates of obesity as both children and adults.
  • Higher self-esteem and a more positive outlook.     
  • Lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, school behavioural problems and depression.
  • Better body image and fewer eating disorders.
  • Better grades, higher reading scores and better vocabulary.


109 reads

Pick The Eating Occasion

You have more chances than you realize to connect with your family at the table. During the work week, most families have two opportunities a day to dine together (breakfast and dinner) and three chances (breakfast, lunch and dinner) on the weekends.

That gives us a total of 16 traditional meal opportunities a week to connect with our families.


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Family Breakfast: Pros And Cons

Pros: Morning is often the only time everyone is together; kids love breakfast food. A study of 8,000 children in Europe showed that kids who ate breakfast with parents five or more days a week were 40 percent less likely to be overweight than their peers. 

Cons: Mornings can be rushed. Harvard’s Family Table project estimates that many families only have about 10 minutes for breakfast. Kids may be sleepy and not as engaged in conversation.


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Lunch: Pros And Cons

Pros: Usually simple and faster than other meals; great for picnics. 

Cons: Just two chances a week (Sat, Sun) for most working families; an only family meal with a potential negative. Studies show that children who eat daily lunch with their parents are more likely to be overweight.


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Dinner: Pros And Cons

Pros:  Longest meal of day (about 22 mins); a good time to catch up on events of day, school, work etc. 

Cons: Tough on working parents to get home in time to cook; for teens, homework and sports conflicts interfere with dinner time.


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Weekend Meals: Pros And Cons

Pros: More time to prepare food, fewer scheduling conflicts. 

Cons: Television (sports) may be more tempting; kids may have less to say about school.


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Extended Snack: Pros And Cons

Pros: Great option when one parent can’t be home for full dinner; use time at the table for game, conversation. 

Cons: Adds extra calories to the day; time at table will be shorter than a regular meal.


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Desserts: Pros And Cons

Pros: Kids love dessert so they will definitely show up; best to serve fruit at least some of the time. 

Cons: Risk of extra calories and sugaring up kids before bedtime


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The Sweet Spot

Family researchers emphasize that there isn’t a magic number for family meals. But they do note that the benefits increase with every meal, so the more times you can gather as a family, the better. Every time parents sit down with their kids, it creates another opportunity to connect, and strong family connections appear to keep teens healthier and safer in a number of areas.

Remember, the family table is not just about dinner — you have 16 opportunities a week to connect over a traditional meal and you can always gather at the table for just a snack or dessert.


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The More The Better

The more times a week a teen sat down for a family meal, the more likely he or she reported having high-quality relationships with parents. Family dinners are also strongly linked to lower rates of teen substance abuse. Here are some numbers to think about:

0-2 Meals Per Week: Family researchers are most concerned about families that drop below eating three meals a week.

3 Meals a Week: Three days a week is the point where researchers begin to notice positive trends in a child’s nutritional and emotional health.

5-7 Meals a Week: Where the greatest benefits in teen and family health were seen.


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Keep It Simple

  • Family meals don’t have to look like a Norman Rockwell painting. “I believe the magic can happen without perfection,” says Lynn Barendsen, a co-founder of The Family Dinner Project. “Come together and enjoy each other’s company and manage to have a great meal."
  • If both parents can’t be home at the same time for dinner, or if teen sports practices get in the way, plan your table time for later in the evening around a family snack or late-evening dessert.
  • Don’t try to go from 1 or 2 meals a week to 7 meals overnight. Look at your family’s schedule for the week and try to find just one meal time that works for your family. Let everyone know and add your plans to the calendars of all the adults and teens in the house.


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Set One Goal

Don’t try to do everything at once. Look at your family and decide what your needs are. If it’s more family table time, try to find one extra meal that works.

If you’ve got picky eaters, focus on strategies to help everyone eat more healthful. If your problem is tension at the dinner table, focus on conversation starters and games to keep everyone happy and engaged.


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Keep it Fun

  • The Family Table should be a fun, welcoming space. It’s not a place for stress, arguments and grilling kids about their grades.
  • Family time at a restaurant is better than no family meal time at all. But the reality is that meals eaten outside the home are almost always less healthful.


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Solo Parents

Sometimes the family table only has one adult. Divorced and single parents have different dinner planning challenges than married parents.

Sometimes one parent has to leave for work early, come home late or be away on business, leaving another parent to manage the family meal. Remember that a successful family table is one that results in family connection, healthful food and fun conversation. One adult at the table is better than none.


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Small Families

One-child families, particularly when there is only one parent, can feel lonely at the family table.

Eating meals with your child as often as possible still counts as a family meal, but consider joining another family from time to time to add a little extra noise and conversation to your family table.


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Sometimes an older sibling or caregiver is in charge of feeding the kids at night.

You can still get the benefits of a family meal by making sure healthful food is served, and asking the caregiver to create a fun meal or suggest games or conversation starters that will allow children and teens to connect with each other and their caregiver.


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Nourish: Good Food Brings Everyone Together

The magic of the family table comes from the conversation and connection between parents and children, but it’s also important to serve nourishing food, model healthful eating habits and avoid food battles.

Childhood health experts say the best advice for improving a child’s diet is simply putting healthful food on the table and sitting down together to eat it.


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Build Your Own

Everybody at the table, including the parents, has likes and dislikes. You can create different dishes for the meat lovers, vegetarians and picky eaters. Or you can just brace yourself for a nightly food battle.

But why not make it easier on everyone and create buffet-style build-your-own meals? Start with a basic ingredient and then step aside and let everyone create their own favorite version of the dish.


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Don't Comment On The Food

Once the food is served, limit any food talk about how good it tastes. Don’t make comments about how much or how little someone has put on their plate. Even something as simple as “Just eat a little more of that,” could prompt a child to become stubborn and resist the food. No cajoling. No bribing, as It makes for tension at the table and it’s counterproductive


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Setting An Example

Children learn eating behaviors, both good and bad, from a parent. So dinner time is a good time to model healthful eating. If a child has avoided a dish, don’t pressure them.

Just give yourself a heaping serving, and ask them if they want to try. If they say no, just say “more for me!” and keep eating.


22 reads

Take Them To The Kitchen

With hot stoves, boiling water and sharp knives at hand, it is understandable that parents don’t want children in the kitchen when they’re making dinner. But studies suggest that involving children in meal preparation is an important first step in getting them to try new foods.


24 reads

The Connect

The secret sauce of family dinner is not the food — it’s the connection parents and kids make with each other.

Family meals offer a natural opportunity for parental influence. There are few other contexts in family life that provide a regular window of focused time together.

This is good news for parents who feel like they can’t quite pull off the perfect family meal every time, because what really seems to matter is just being there to talk, listen and see your kids, even if the meal is just a quick sandwich or a store-prepared chicken.


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What Not To Talk About

Family meals should be fun, interesting and free of conflict. 

Don't Talk About: 

Bad grades or school problems: Kids never feel good when they struggle in school.

Chores: Kids feel berated when parents keep reminding them of chores.

Politics: Whether you broach the topic of politics depends on your family.

What everyone is eating: It’s never helpful to comment about the food one of your kids is eating or not eating. 


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What To Talk About

How you can help:  Ask your kids if they need any help with homework or school projects.

Weekend and vacation plans: Topics like holiday plans, weekend outings and dream vacations (past and future) are terrific topics for a fun family dinner.

Current events: A family table is a great place for serious topics about the world around us.

What everyone wants to eat: The dinner table is a great place to talk about foods you love, foods that make you squeamish or the best (or worst) meal you’ve ever had. 


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Tech-Free Zone

Some families choose “zero tolerance” for mealtimes. There are certainly times when this is a good idea for everyone. Zero tolerance means you turn off all computers, televisions and cellphones.

Here’s the bad news — it’s usually parents who are most likely to break the rules. So zero tolerance needs to apply to everyone at the table, not just the kids.


27 reads

Conversation Starters

Do your kids have a favorite song or video that’s on their minds? Sometimes technology can spark a conversation and family connection. Watch a short clip or let your child read from a funny blog post. Now put the phones in the center of the table and enjoy the conversation that ensues after you’ve allowed yourself to peek inside your child’s digital world.


27 reads


To get the most out of the family table, it’s time to learn how to play with your food.

Every time you gather as a family around the table, remember to create one fun and playful moment that everyone at the table can share. You can make shapes and faces out of food, make a recipe a parent loved as a child, play table games or pose an unusual question of the day. “As our worlds have become increasingly virtual, cooking is one of the rare activities that involve our senses, allows us to make things with our hands, and is an activity that we can do together.


20 reads



"Never look back unless you are planning to go that way." - Henry David Thoreau


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