Institute of Child Psychology

Family Dinners

In previous generations, family dinner was a staple, but life shifted in the past 20 years or so. Families now rush from activity to activity, cellphones are in everyone’s hands, and the TV has become part of the never-ending background noise. It’s time for us to take back the beautiful, inherent power of family meals.

Family meals are daily affirmations of who a family is- what defines them, what values are treasured, who each family member wants to be in the world, and what path is going to be forged to get there. When it comes to defining your family, regular family meals (breakfast, lunch, or dinner) may be one of the most important commitments you make. The research on family meals is overwhelmingly positive. Here are just a few of the benefits:

Young children: Dinner conversation boosts a young child’s vocabulary even more than being read to.

Children who experience regular family dinners are more likely to engage in healthier eating patterns throughout their lives.

Numerous studies link regular family meals to lower rates of adolescent risk behavior like binge drinking, smoking, sexual activity, school issues, and eating disorders.

The psychological wellness factors attributed to family meals are huge. Studies show that regular family dinners lower the risk of teen depression and promote higher levels of resiliency in children who are victims of  

For most families, sitting down for every meal will be impossible. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University that looked at over 1000 teens found that five to seven meals a week (breakfast, lunch, or dinner) is the number of meals needed for children and teens to reap the benefits of eating together (and the benefits continue to increase as the number of family meals increase).

So what is the magic of family dinners? Yes, we tend to eat better when we all sit down together. But at the heart of it, it’s about connection. Of course, we need to question whether regular family meals lead to better outcomes for children or if families that are more connected are more likely to have family dinner, leading to better outcomes. A study that explored this question found that the benefits of family dinner held up when parents focused on connection at the table.

It also found that family experiences related to connection also influenced the outcome. Activities that promoted time together between a parent and a child (going to a movie), parental influence and limit setting (setting a curfew), and resources (income level) also played a role. What the researchers did note is that two of our main daily opportunities to connect with our children are either in the car or at a family meal.

It’s ultimately not about the dinner table; it’s really about connection and fostering a sense of belonging. The dinner table is a wonderful reminder to connect daily, but we can be creative about how and when we connect. The focus on family meals is quintessentially about our children having a space to be heard, a space to hear others, a space to identify with, a space where we can slow down the world and focus on what’s important without the TV or phones (turning off electronics for all family members cannot be overstated).

Family meals are not about creating a daily idyllic experience. It’s about the spilt drinks, the squabbling of siblings, and the peas on the floor; it’s about role modelling to our children how to work with the peaceful moments and the more challenging moments. How do we really listen to one another? How do we ask questions? What is important to our family? Is everyone given an equal voice? Do we really talk to one another in a meaningful way or do we just talk over each other?

Remember to start with small shifts. If you eat one dinner together a week, try sitting down for two meals initially. Think about what your family needs, and pick one goal. Is it less tension, is it greater conversation, is it  trying more nutritious food together? Focus more on the experience than an elaborate meal. Get the whole family involved in the prep, the experience, and the cleanup, as a family meal is not just about the time sitting down. Be the alpha and set the tone of the experience. Consider adding a ritual to the family meal. This may mean blessing the food, having everyone identify something that they are grateful for, or taking turns initiating conversation starters.

Dinners can be challenging, and so you may need to reflect on your own triggers and/or plan ahead with a partner on how to handle mealtime challenges in a manner that aligns with your values. Don’t give up—the more we practice, the more likely we are to experience positive outcomes. Let’s prioritize connection over busyness, listening over talking, family over technology. Let’s bring back family meals.

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