Is family dinner really a silver bullet? We’ve all read, or at least heard about, the correlation between family dinners and improved physical and emotional health of our kids, better grades and social skills, and avoidance or delay in risky behavior like drugs, alcohol and early sexual activity.
But if your daughter flees the table in tears during an argument, or if your son shuts down when he feels he’s being criticised, or if you want to scream because your kids (or spouse) reject a meal you prepared, the benefits of the shared meal can seem unattainable.
As a family dinner advocate, cookbook author and meal planning expert, I’ve made it my mission to help families eat dinner together more often by helping them remove the stress and obstacles around making it happen.
But what I’ve also observed is that it’s not just about the food: There are interactions between parents and kids that can detract from the potential upsides of eating together.
When our oldest was a high school senior, we were eager to learn more about where he was thinking of applying to college and how his essays were coming along. Since we were all running in different directions during the day, my husband and I saw dinnertime as the perfect opportunity to inquire about his college apps. But Solomon is an independent guy and he wanted to manage the process his own way and on his own timeline. Raising the issue at dinner proved to be a quick and reliable way to cut dinner short or stunt conversation. Once we took that topic off the table, Solomon relaxed, knowing that the salmon was the only thing at the table that would be grilled.
In thinking back over 18 years of family meals (or more than 4,000 dinners together!), I’ve examined what has separated the dinners where we felt really connected from the ones that made us all want to bolt from the table.
Through my work I have also spoken to many other families and have discovered that there are 6 ways to suck the joy right out of family dinners.
Raising stressful topics or arguing
Tempting as it may be to take the opportunity to talk about your kids’ grades, study habits, or your custody schedule, family dinner isn’t the place to do it if you want your family members to see the dinner table as a place they want to spend time. “I do think children are entitled to have family dinnertime be a vacation from unpleasant or uncomfortable topics, free of nagging and critical attention,” said Washington, D.C. area educational consultant and founder of the Quad2Quad college visit app, Susan Jones.
Instead: Save important topics for car rides or set aside 30 minutes each week for a family meeting to go over schedules and talk about difficult topics.
Focusing too much on manners
It’s a dilemma. The dinner table is the obvious place to teach our kids table manners. On the other hand, teaching manners can easily turn into nonstop nagging that makes your little cave-kid feel criticised. “Constant micromanaging (use your napkin, don’t put your cup there, sit closer to the table) ruins the joy of dinner. Yes, teaching kids manners is important, but barking orders at them through every meal is aggravating,” according to Gaithersburg, Md. mom Gail Lawyer Norris.
Instead: Decide together on one table manner the family will focus on each week (adults too). Give a gentle reminder before the meal begins and direct positive statements to the family members that are doing well with chewing with their mouth closed, not interrupting, or using utensils rather than fingers.
Complaining about the food
Negativity is a joy killer, especially when it’s about the food we serve. When our kids were little, I would get upset when they said they didn’t like what I made or refused to try it, because I felt like my efforts were unappreciated. “When one of the kids suddenly declares they don’t like a meal that they have liked in the past it totally takes the wind out of my sails,” said Renée Barratt of Salem, Ore.
Instead: Teach your family to express gratitude even if the meal isn’t what they would have chosen. After I expressed hurt feelings, our kids came up with a new saying: “Mum, I know you worked hard on it, but it’s not my favorite.” Even though it was contrived, somehow it made me feel better and did teach them to be more considerate. Getting family members to be responsible for one dinner a week can also help them appreciate the effort that goes into making dinner happen.
Talking about what others are eating
I know, it’s so hard to resist asking kids to have one more bite of broccoli. But I’ve come to believe that focusing on what or how much anyone else is eating is the dullest form of conversation, raises our blood pressure, is ineffective or even counter-productive, and if done repeatedly, may lead to eating disorders.
Instead: Model healthy eating yourself, and direct your cooking efforts toward foods you feel better about serving. “When the kids were small, the joy-sucker was me caring what they ate. Once I learned to put only those things that I wanted them to eat on the plate -veggies for the first course, the proteins after that, carbs last – then the problem pretty much resolved itself,” said Chevy Chase, Md. parent, Beth Kevles.
Using your phone or other electronic devices
Sometimes it seems like the dinner table is-or can be – the last bastion of our day that doesn’t revolve around a screen. But when someone furtively texts or Snapchats under the table or pays more attention to their devices than their dinner companions, the potential human connections are severed.
Instead: Ban all devices from the table, except for rare cases (e.g., presidential debates, when a favorite team is finally in the championships, when looking up a nugget of information would enhance a discussion, or other occasional agreed upon family exceptions). Cheater does the dishes!
Not coming to the table when dinner is ready (or leaving before others are finished)
Whether you spend 15 minutes or an hour preparing it, it hurts when family members don’t come to the table while the food is hot or if they race off while others are still eating. “Despite multiple warnings that dinner is almost ready, everyone disappears when I put the food on the table – to make a drink, go to the bathroom, finish up on the computer, etc. It drives me crazy when food is going cold after all that work!” fumes Washington, D.C. parent Lisa J. Stevenson.
Instead: Enlist family members’ help in meal preparation and table setting so they appreciate the work that goes into making dinner happen, and explain why it’s important to you that people gather while the meal is fresh. Give one 5 minute dinner warning by voice or text. The person who is still late gets to clear the whole table.
When it’s a place of calm rather than conflict, dinner can be the ideal time to learn social and conversational skills, such as listening to others and taking turns. Shared meals can also be one of the most natural settings to learn more about the details of each others’ lives and share stories from our day or ponder life’s questions, big or small.
One way to make dinner nourishing for the spirit as well as the body and ban the negativity is to find ways to express and experience gratitude before the meal, whether it’s a moment of silence and a few deep breaths, prayer, or sharing something for which we each are thankful. After dinner we can extend the gratitude by thanking the “chef” and helping with the cleanup.
When we focus on being grateful and considerate, and eliminate the joy-killers, we stand a much better chance of reaping the vast rewards of family dinner.
Aviva Goldfarb is a Today Show and Washington Post contributor, author of ‘The Six O’Clock Scramble’ cookbooks, and frequently appears in major national media as a family dinner expert.