People go to great lengths to give their children the leading edge when it comes to education and playing sports: moving across the country, hiring the best tutors and trainers, enrolling in the most rigorous academic programs. If you knew with certainty that your child would have greater self-esteem, an increase in physical abilities, achieve higher academically, and have good mental health, would you do whatever it took? For the multi-taskers reading this (hi, moms!), you can kill several birds with the same stone, and that stone is dinnertime. Can I get a fist-bump here?!
The benefits of family dinner
Research shows that family dinners are advantageous in helping your child physically, emotionally, and academically, yet only 30% of families regularly sit down at the dinner table together.
If you want your teenagers to talk to you, 80% of teenagers indicated they were most likely to talk…guess when? When sitting down for dinner with their parents.
For those suffering from depression or anxiety, you can help yourself and your children (often it runs in the family) by having regular family dinners. Studies show families who regularly eat together have lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance use, eating disorders, early pregnancy and higher rates of self-esteem, resiliency. So, the benefits are clear: dinner together is a fantastic family affair.
Ways to make dinnertime a sure-fire way to connect
Start small and realistic. Ideally, you’d have dinner each day together like The Wonder Years, but realistically, start with aiming for one or two nights out of the week. Small changes make big differences over time. This isn’t an all-or-nothing approach, but a way to begin transforming your quality time together as something more predictable and time that your family can look forward to.
Make it easy. You can make dinner easier and less messy by ordering takeout, buying a pre-made meal kit from the store, or pouring a bowl of cereal (backwards day – breakfast for dinner). The point is it’s not about what you eat, but that you gather together, setting the stage for conversations and connection to happen.
Make it technology-free. If you are tethered to your phone like so many of us are, this will be really difficult at first. Unless you are on-call, most emails and texts can wait 20-30 minutes. And let’s admit, we can all use a break from social media, and dinnertime will give us all the break we need. If at first you or your family members feel anxious, like you don’t know what to say to one another or looking directly at one another feels strange, come prepared with some ice breakers:
- The high and low game: Name one high and one low for the day
- How did you show kindness today? Or how were you shown kindness today?
- What is your favorite show, game, sports team? What makes it so special?
Make it a ritual. This dinnertime ritual is something you and your family can look forward to each week. Rituals are different from habits or routines. Generally, habits or routines are tasks that keep us doing what we need to get done, sometimes on autopilot. Instead, a ritual is a deliberate and intentional act that has meaning and deepens connections with others. As you think about dinnertime together, ask yourself these questions to help define how this is a ritual from a routine in your life:
- What makes this meaningful to you?
- What do you hope to accomplish?
- When will this be done?
- How would you like to do this?
- Who do you want involved?
- Who does what?
We’re all busy and we will continue to be busy. While we may have less influence on making our lives less busy, we can develop ways to increase connection and conversation starting with gathering together over a meal. While this article focused on dinnertime, if dinnertime doesn’t work for one reason or another, make it breakfast or brunch on Sunday. The point is, find a mealtime that you can foster a regular ritual to increase connection, giving your family advantages and life skills that will continue for years to come.
Resources to help you turn dinnertime into a regular ritual for your entire family
Family Dinner Project is a nonprofit that helps families find their way back to the dinner table with fun, easy conversations and meals. This organization claims dinnertime as a family is achievable and they offer suggestions on how to integrate it into your routine.
If you find yourself feeling disconnected, distressed, or anxious around creating this type of ritual and connection with your family, therapy offers a safe and supportive space for you to reflect, gain awareness, and get support. Maybe you came from a family where mealtimes were disjointed, or your partner had different rituals around mealtime, or food is a trigger – therapy can help. I’m a therapist in AZ and an advocate for getting support; my practice specializes in relationship health—you can find me here.