Reaping the Many Benefits of Family Dinners

As a therapist, I often see families at my home office in the late afternoon. Many days, as I race downstairs, hoping to restore the brittle ties between moody teens and their discouraged parents, I throw a chicken into the oven first. As the smells build, I have the fantasy of saying: “Don’t waste your time here. Go home right now and cook a meal and eat it together. Here are some recipes. Now, go.” Instead, I often make mealtime a focus of therapy, and I have found that many disconnected families find their way back to each other through a nightly commitment to family dinners. Why this zeal about family dinners?

Over the last 15 years, a large number of scientific studies have confirmed what parents have known intuitively for a long time: sitting down to a family meal is good for the spirit, the brain, and the body. Recent studies link regular family dinners (5 or more meals a week) with a host of teenage behaviors that parents pray for: lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and depression, as well as higher grade-point averages and self-esteem. Dinner conversation is a great booster of vocabulary for young children, and stories told around the table about parents and grandparents help to build self-esteem and resilience. The icing on the cake is that regular family meals also lower the rates of obesity and eating disorders in children.

As a family therapist here’s what else I’ve learned about family dinners:

Spend five minutes talking about your family’s dinner. Who sits where at the table, and how were the seats chosen? Who decides the menu, and what happens if someone doesn’t like the meal? What do you talk about at dinner? Are there topics or emotions that are taboo? What is the symbolic meaning given to food? Who shops, cooks, serves, cleans up? And what do these roles say about your family’s ideas about gender roles? How is dinnertime protected from technology, like texting at the table, answering the phone, watching TV? What did you want to carry forward from the family you grew up in?

Family dinner is play.

Mealtime is to families what sex is to couples, what music is to adolescents, and what water and sand are to toddlers. Mealtime is a medium of play – a way for families to have pleasure with one another. It’s important that the cook (or cooks) not feel overburdened or unappreciated, that children feel that their food preferences are considered, and that all family members have a chance to speak at the table. You might ask: “What would make dinnertime more fun?”

Change the routine as your children grow.

Your child’s appetite, ability to cook, and readiness to participate in dinner conversation all change dramatically from infancy through young adulthood.

When you have toddlers, that is a critical time to start regular family dinners, despite the challenge of sitting still for long. Serve food family-style in bowls that youngsters can reach out and try, and allow your kids to see you eating food with gusto. Don’t use reward or punishment to encourage eating, and know that toddlers may need up to 15 presentations of the same food before they try it. Any child who “helps” to make dinner is more likely to want to try it. The whole process of mixing, stirring, and making a mess fascinates young children, so let them stir the soup and crumble the cheese.

As your children become school-aged, they are learning to share and compromise. At dinner, they will want to make meal choice fair and will want equitable airtime to speak. As they become more aware of the world around them through watching TV and visiting other children’s houses, they may want to experiment with new foods. It can be fun to recreate foods they’ve eaten elsewhere, like making pizza or tacos. And they can start to be critical consumers, engaging in questions like why do TV ads advertise fast food? Or, why do schools offer unhealthy foods?

During adolescence, family dinners tend to decrease, although most teens will concede that they enjoy having dinner at home. The dinner hour may need to be more flexible to accommodate sports practices and play rehearsals, or family meals may move to other times, like late-night snacks.

Since adolescence is a time of exploration and separation, your kids may declare that they have food preferences that are unlike yours. When my sons became teens, they both started cooking red meat, delighting their father and differentiating them from me, a lifelong avoider of red meat. Agree that dinner will be off limits for discussing conflicts, like curfews or whose turn it is to take out the trash.

Pay attention to table conversation.

Talk at the table is one of the richest language experiences of your child’s life, and it’s just the kind I try to foster in therapy–everyone taking turns, telling stories, offering explanations, listening to each other. When else besides around the table (or in therapy) do we sit and talk for several minutes, with family members offering lots of different comments on one topic? Make sure that the quieter members can speak without interruptions, and that you add variety to table talk – not only what you did at school today, but also talk about what ingredients are in the food, and about funny, poignant, and courageous stories about other family members. This is a great time to remember how your family emigrated or a difficult life choice that Uncle Albert made, or how your grandparents met and decided to elope. Dinner is also a time to talk about plans for the future, politics, the neighborhood, and music.

So, let’s talk about your family dinners–What do your dinners say about your family, and how do you get your family to eat together?