Advise Me

Sharing More than a Meal Together: Making the Most of Family Dinners

Family dinners on TV shows or in movies might not have much in common with how things go at your home.

Those fictional meals tend to show happy families sitting at the dining room table. There’s not a phone or TV in sight. No one is rushing out the door to get to a meeting or a practice or complaining that the food looks yucky.

What you see is what looks like a meal that took hours to prepare — maybe a homemade lasagna with a side salad, a roast chicken with potatoes and veggies or a steaming pan of cheese enchiladas with avocado, cilantro and onions for toppings.

If you try to measure yourself by that standard, you might be tempted to throw in the dish towel and let everyone forage in the fridge for their own food. 

Before you do that, take a step back and think about the point of a family dinner. Is it really about the food? Or is it about gathering at the end of the day for a little bit of time together so you can connect? 

Lindsay L'vov, a registered dietitian with Banner Health, said, “Family meals are an opportunity to sit together and decompress from the day. It’s a chance to reaffirm love and support. When families can enjoy a meal together, it helps counterbalance all of the uncertainty from the outside world, allowing each person to lean on comfortable and comforting family bonds.”

Benefits of family dinner

This time together can bring big benefits. “It results in increased self-awareness, self-acceptance and confidence, which carries into outside relationships and ambitions,” L'vov said.

Family meals give you the opportunity to:

  • Strengthen family bonds
  • Foster communication and connection
  • Build positive relationships and memories
  • Promote healthy eating habits
  • Encourage balanced nutrition
  • Model healthy food choices
  • Provide emotional support to each other
  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Build resilience

Research has also found some solid benefits to family meals. Kids who eat with their parents have higher grades and bigger vocabularies. They’re less likely to have depression or substance abuse. They have better nutrition and lower rates of obesity. And adults get boosts in their nutrition and mental health, too.

So how can you get the gains from family dinners in a way that works for your family? L'vov shared some tips.

Do it your way

“Don’t make rules where there aren’t rules,” L'vov said. These days, most families can’t all sit down together at 6 p.m. for a made-from-scratch meal. Lots of challenges come up, including:

  • Staggered schedules: How can you find time to prepare a meal and eat together between work, school and other activities?
  • Food allergies and sensitivities: There may be people in your family who can’t eat gluten, dairy or other foods.
  • Picky eaters: Lots of kids go through phases — sometimes for years — when they refuse to eat certain foods. 

“Identify what isn’t working for you and create something better that works for your family,” L'vov said. “Many rules around food are completely arbitrary.”

For example, dinner doesn’t have to be the biggest meal of the day and it doesn’t have to be at 6 p.m. Maybe a meal at 4:30 p.m. with snacks before bedtime is a better fit for your family.

Don’t fret about the food

Focus on getting your family together to connect, not on making sure the meal is Instagram-worthy. L'vov said these all count as a family meal:

  • Everyone at the dinner table — even if dinner is pancakes or grilled cheese sandwiches.
  • Everyone at the table for an ice cream sundae adventure.
  • A buffet-style make-your-own lettuce wraps bar.
  • Going out to a restaurant together.
  • A family picnic.
  • A fast-food trip in the car. “Everyone is eating together, so it counts,” she said.

Focus on the positive

“The healthiest thing you can do to a meal is add a smile,” L'vov said. “That sounds trite, but stress increases hormonal cascades that result in high blood pressure and blood sugar and poor digestion.”

Nobody enjoys eating a meal together if the experience is stressful. Plus, stress has a negative impact on the nutrients you absorb.

She said that dinnertime isn’t when you should bring up difficult topics – and that may include school performance. Have those conversations at another time. “The table is a place for kind conversation,” she said. “Look at your family mealtime situation and see where you can inject some fun or humor.”

Get kids involved

Include kids in the meal planning and prep. “Kids as young as age 2 can use a toddler-safe knife and veggie to help prepare a salad — within reach of an adult,” L’vov said. They can also help set the table. As kids get older, they can be involved in menu planning, more complex prep activities and cleanup.

Keep in mind that meals with kids don’t always go according to plan. Kids may express their boundaries by not eating. “This could be due to sensory issues, medications, scheduling or other factors that impact their appetite,” L’vov said. 

You can encourage them to meet their nutritional needs by serving a meal that has a safe option, like pasta or bread, then sitting down and enjoying the meal together. “Be careful to avoid comments about how many bites the child is taking,” L’vov said. You don’t want mealtime to become a battleground.

Younger kids, especially, might have a tough time sitting still. Make it more fun with conversation starters. You can ask everyone to share the best part of their day or play I Spy. Share stories and enjoy each other’s company.

“Getting kids involved and developing meaningful family mealtime routines will likely keep them interested. By creating a safe and happy place they can rely on, you can ensure that when they need a safe and happy place, they will know where to turn,” L'vov said.

Find a schedule that works for you

Seven-day-a-week family dinners might not be workable for your family. Every time you can make it happen, it makes a difference. 

It doesn’t even need to be dinner. Maybe you pop a make-ahead breakfast casserole in the oven in the morning and sit down together before the day gets going. Or a weekend lunch at a local restaurant might work for your family.

What works this year might not work next year – or even next week. Be flexible and as your schedules change, you’ll find ways to make meals work for your family’s situation.

The bottom line

Spending time together as a family enjoying meals has big benefits for kids and adults too. Forget about the stereotypes of family dinners. These meals don’t have to be homemade and they don’t even have to be dinner. You can get the benefits by finding ways to make family meals work for your family. 

If you would like expert help on meals for your family’s situation, reach out to a Banner Health registered dietitian or provider.

Other useful articles

Nutrition Parenting