Most American families are short on time to spend together, and dinner may be the only time of day when we can reconnect, leaving our own activities such as video games, emailing, and doing schoolwork behind. Dinner is a time to unwind, refuel, laugh, tell tales, and catch up on the events of the day, all while creating a feeling of who we are as a family.
Is there any scientific evidence that family dinners are beneficial?
Researchers have validated what parents have long known: sharing a family meal is healthy for the spirit, the brain, and the health of all family members. Recent research has linked regular family dinners to many of the behaviors that parents hope for, including decreased rates of substance misuse, teen pregnancy, and depression, as well as improved grade-point averages and self-esteem. According to research, dinner conversation is a more effective vocabulary enhancer for young children than reading, and stories spoken around the kitchen table help our children learn resilience. The cherry on top is that regular family meals reduce the prevalence of obesity and eating problems in children and adolescents. What else can families do that simply takes an hour a day and packs such a powerful punch?
We're simply overburdened. How will we make time to cook and eat together?
Time is undoubtedly one of the most significant barriers to families gathering for dinner, but so is the belief that the food must be prepared from scratch, using organic ingredients, and agonized over for hours. Quick and easy dishes are just as tasty as fancy feasts. The greatest advantages occur when the food is served and everyone can spend time together. One nice idea is to make a large quantity of soup or a double batch of a casserole over the weekend and then freeze some for easy weeknight dinners. Some dishes can be tossed up quickly using store-bought components such as pre-cut vegetables or pre-made pizza dough. There are also other recipes that take less than 15 minutes to prepare. More ideas can be found in the Food section of our website.
A evening meal is an efficient use of time if you consider it a time to nourish your family, avoid various problems, develop your children's cognitive capacities, and provide pleasure and excitement that they may build on for the rest of their lives.
WHAT EXACTLY IS A FAMILY DINNER?
Parents frequently question what constitutes a "family supper" and what they must do to get the benefits of dining together. Some of the questions I've been asked at community meals and in my family counseling practice are as follows:
What if just one of the parents is available for dinner?
A family supper is defined as two family members eating together, talking, and enjoying one another. It may be an uncle or a grandmother!
What if it's a take-out order?
A family supper is defined by conversation and stories during the meal. The only caveat is that a take-out dinner may not be as nutritious as a home-cooked meal because restaurant cuisine is heavier in fat, salt, and sugar.
What if the television is on?
According to research, while the television is on, children consume more calories and consume fewer vegetables and fruits. A continuous diet of family dinners in front of the television would undoubtedly interfere with the pleasures and advantages of talking. However, watching a TV show at dinner or watching the news together as a family might lead to conversations that go beyond what happened at school today.
What if we can only manage dinner once a week, but research indicates that it should be five times a week? Should we simply disregard it?
No! When a family has one excellent meal or one "good enough" meal, they frequently desire more of them. Even one positive supper per week can benefit a family.
Is it necessary to have dinner?
Every week, families can eat together at least 16 times: 7 breakfasts, 7 dinners, and two weekend lunches. Furthermore, a night-time snack, such as fruit and hot chocolate, can be an opportunity for parents and children to bond and laugh together. The goal is not to reach an arbitrary number, but to seize as many possibilities as possible.
COOKING AND FOOD
Does it really matter what we eat as long as we sit together and eat?
It's difficult to disagree that feeding your family healthful meals is a good idea! This not only makes your children healthier as they develop, but it also encourages healthy eating after they leave home. Some families enjoy experimenting with varied menus, while others prefer to stick to a plan, such as Monday nights for pasta, Tuesday nights for tortillas, and so on. Some youngsters enjoy helping with menu planning and cooking, so food becomes an important part of the family's identity. For other families, the food is secondary to other components of the meal, such as discussion and entertainment.
How much assistance should I anticipate from my family in cooking dinner? In terms of cleaning? Do I have to do everything myself?
Most children like assisting others and should be encouraged to do so. The trick is determining which tasks are developmental appropriate for your youngster. Even small toddlers might be instructed to add seasoning, stir a stew, or rinse veggies. Elementary-aged children can set and clear the table, pour drinks, and help with food preparation.
Many teens see cooking as a form of self-expression and may like the prospect of preparing a meal or a portion of a meal. Participating in all aspects of dinner preparation—grocery shopping, menu planning, cooking, serving, and cleanup—only adds to the family atmosphere. If someone is feeling overworked, the roles and tasks should be reconsidered and more evenly assigned. More people contributing and no single member feeling resentful would improve everyone's dinner.
What kinds of dishes should I prepare to get my children more involved at dinnertime?
Make a supper that includes activities for the kids. My kids, for example, enjoyed pulling the basil leaves off the stalks. We'd mix them in a food processor with a clove of garlic, salt, Parmesan cheese, and olive oil to make a fast pesto sauce. Any meal that includes ingredients that children can peel, mash, or sprinkle is a winner.
Simple foods that children may personalize promote involvement. Parents might prepare crepes, tacos, or even a pot of chicken rice soup to which their children can add their favorite toppings, such as chopped carrots or peppers, roasted garlic, or sliced cheese.
It's also entertaining to select foods that are brightly colored, similar to the hues in their crayon boxes. This is eye-catching and adds to the fun of supper preparation.
What are some topics of discussion for younger children?
Even if they are unable to hold lengthier talks, smaller children enjoy participating in dinnertime banter. A simple "What did you do today?" will sometimes elicit amusing responses on what the child witnessed on a walk or did during playtime. Inquiring about their favorite games, cartoons, or toys will pique their attention and elicit attentive responses. "What can your favorite toy or cartoon character do that you'd like to do?" you might wonder.
Furthermore, graphics and photos are excellent conversation starters. Bring a photo that you don't mind getting dirty to the dinner table and ask your youngster to explain what he or she sees. If it's a family photo, the child might wonder who's in it and what they're doing. This could spark a lively discussion about various family members and their lives.
Children enjoy telling and hearing stories about their parents, grandparents, and ancestors. You may potentially begin a story by asking one of the following questions:
"Can you tell me about how your parents met?"
"Do you know how your name or your parents' names were chosen?"
"Do you know some of the lessons your parents learnt from their early experiences, both good and bad?"
"Do you remember what jobs your parents had when they were younger?"
"Can you tell me the first anecdote you have about an ancestor?"
Our one-line conversation starters are also excellent for children of this age. Asking your child, "If you could be any animal, what would you be and why?" is a great approach to start a stimulating discussion.
Do you have any conversation starters for kids aged 9 to 13?
This is an excellent age for talking since children can hold longer discussions and consider more difficult themes. We also have a lot of conversation starters for this age group. "If you had three wishes, what would they be?" will elicit some intriguing reactions from your child.
Kids enjoy telling stories, especially about their own experiences or interests. A parent may try to piggyback on their child's response after asking about their day at school. If a youngster relates a story about not receiving a part in a play, a parent might tell a story about a setback he had and what he learnt from it. Stories that begin negatively but end pleasantly are related with higher levels of life satisfaction.
Discussing historical characters or present celebrities can also be entertaining. Which public figure does your child or son most admire? Who would they meet if they could meet anyone from history? Check out our "Inspiration" conversation starters for more questions like these.
Finally, experiment with "family interviews." It's amazing how little we know about our family members' daily life!
I'm always at a loss for topics to discuss with my adolescent. How can I move past "I'm fine"?
It might be difficult to engage teenagers in family meal discussions. Many of our one-line conversation openers, such as "What's the strangest thing you've ever eaten?" are excellent for getting individuals to open up. and "Did anyone read anything fascinating today on the internet or in the newspaper?"
Teenagers also like talking about public personalities they admire, such as sports heroes, artists, actors, and politicians. If your teen could invite one person (alive or dead) to dinner, who would it be? What would they discuss? What purpose would they serve?
Presenting a morally problematic or thought-provoking topic is an excellent method to stimulate discussion. At supper, present one of our "Conversations of the Week" and invite your teenagers to weigh in. Because there isn't always a clear "correct" or "wrong" response, these should spark some intriguing conversations.
Furthermore, it is often beneficial to speak about your own experiences of the day in an honest and self-disclosing manner, possibly admitting anything humiliating or challenging. This will compel your kid or daughter to open up about their own experiences. To lighten the mood, you may even retell a joke you heard at work.
Last but not least, you may question your teenagers about their favorite movies, innovations, or music. Our "Thoughts and Opinions" discussion starters can help your teenagers open up about their likes, dislikes, and opinions on a wide range of issues.
IDEAS FOR GAMES AND ACTIVITIES
What are some fun mealtime games and activities for younger children?
Younger children (ages 2–7) enjoy guessing games. Try a round of I-Spy, in which each family member "spies" something on the dinner table while the other family members guess what it is. Your kids might appreciate our "Can You Remember?" game as well. Close their eyes and ask if they remember what their surroundings were like ("What color was my shirt? "How many plates are there on the table?" Games like "Which One?" are ideal for anyone who enjoys answering 20 questions. Ask your children to guess the ingredients in your meals for a more food-focused guessing game. To make the game more interesting, add a "hidden" ingredient to the meal, such as vanilla or paprika. This is a fantastic approach to get youngsters interested in food and how it is made.
Investigate mysterious foods. Take your kids to the shop and ask them to choose a fruit or vegetable they've never seen or tasted before. Years ago, my kids chose a coconut and we spent the entire afternoon attempting to open it. We cleared out the street below with hammers and chisels before hurling it from a third-floor window. You might do better by googling a new food for preparation ideas or visiting epicurious.com for cooking suggestions.
You could also wish to experiment with color and taste. Ask your children to create a menu using only one color and then assist you in creating it. Alternatively, allow your children to create a dinner that includes all five tastes—bitter, sweet, sour, salty, and umami—and assist you in preparing it.
Another entertaining option is to turn your dinner into a restaurant. Give your kitchen to your children and ask them to prepare dinner for you. They may want assistance in locating recipes suited for their age, and you will most likely have to shop for or with them. They can, however, develop a menu and turn the kitchen or dining room into a restaurant on their own. You and your children will love having them take your orders, bring the meal to the table, and serve you in a role reversal.
Finally, if your family has a favorite board game, include it into your dinner for Family Game Night. Appetizers and finger appetizers can be served as supper that night, creating a pleasant and adaptable environment.
Do you have any gaming ideas for tweens and teens?
Dinner can be made more fun by incorporating games and activities. Try our Story Starters activity for tweens and teens who enjoy telling stories. Each family member adds a few phrases to a story as they go around the table, allowing the family to compose a story together. "Once upon a time, there was a guy who lived in a modest house," for example, or "Once upon a time, there was a girl who liked to climb trees."
"Two Truths and a Tall Tale" is another imaginative game that frequently generates amusing dialogue. Each member of the family delivers three stories about their day or themselves, only one of which is true. Everyone must guess which stories are true and which are made up.
You could even turn your supper into a literary event. Have you ever noticed how many different foods are mentioned in children's books? In The Little House in the Big Woods, I recall maple syrup on snow, pomegranates in the Greek tale of Persephone, and Turkish Delight in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. You can prepare delicacies from some of your children's favorite stories with them and then read them aloud while they eat.
Try Iron Chef: Family Edition if you want to spice up your dinner. For this game, one family member chooses two or three ingredients, while another creates a menu around them. For example, sample ingredients could be pasta, a vegetable, and a herb. Teens who enjoy cooking will enjoy the challenge of creating a menu and will feel proud when they serve their meals to the family.
COMMON DINNERTIME DIFFICULTIES
We always argue when we get together. How can I keep this vibe from dominating the dinner table?
Some families fight over specific issues, such as unclean rooms or a recent science grade. Agreeing to avoid those issues during dinner will reduce mealtime bickering. Other families appear to dispute simply to communicate with one another. In such a circumstance, you may want to establish some ground rules. For example, each member must wait until he or she is holding a certain object, such as a seashell, before speaking, and anyone who raises his or her voice must agree to take a "time out" and calm down before returning to the table. Adults must set a good example by not interrupting and by asking questions rather than disputing with what is stated.
We place a high value on our youngsters developing appropriate table manners. How can we teach excellent manners without making dinnertime uncomfortable?
You won't let the teaching of good manners dominate the atmosphere if you focus on one priority at a time. Focusing on etiquette that promote courteous speaking and listening, such as not speaking with your mouth full or talking over others, appears to be a good place to start. Parents can try to improve their own manners, which will make their children feel less monitored.
My children and/or spouse are texting at the dinner table, which drives me insane. How can I request that they stop without scaring them away?
You may ask them to attempt a week or two of no-texting to see whether the discussion and vibe at the table changes for them as well as for you. Alternatively, you may request that kids only use their phones to facilitate discourse, such as checking up a movie time, defining a phrase, or settling a disagreement, such as who won the World Series in 1985.
Numerous studies demonstrate that dining together is not only a vital component of family life, but it also aids in weight control. When a family sits down together, it helps them deal with the strains and inconveniences of daily life. Eating together promotes healthier eating habits, which helps family members maintain their weight more easily.