The Essential Nature of Family Dinner

The Essential Nature of Family Dinner

Family dinner is essential when members come together at the end of their day with the ones they love. Lasting memories from couples, children, and families are made during these times that will span years to come with favorite meals and traditions. With parent’s and children’s busy schedules, this time can often seem unattainable. In this blog, I will highlight the benefits of spending time together as a family, common barriers, rule setting for family dinners, and how family dinner time can shape our relationships. We have written previously on family dinner, and the research is becoming ever clear about the substantial benefits from eating together as a family.

Benefits of Having Dinner as a Family 

Having dinner as a family can benefit both parents and children in many ways. Once children are old enough to be in school all day, it is the perfect time at the end of our busy days to come back together and connect as a family. This can be a time to share the ups and downs of our days, advise on how to approach situations in school or with friends and inform one another of upcoming plans or special events. For some, this can serve as a time of reassurance after extremely tough days. Family dinnertime can encourage social and emotional well-being for parents and children as they can positively engage and communicate with one another (Utter et al., 2018). 

Family mealtime helps to increase resiliency factors and self-esteem while decreasing chances of stress, anxiety, and depression (Fishel, 2016). Think about how stressful the school day can be for kids with tests, sports, and the pressure to fit in. When they can express their feelings to their parents and siblings, it may be helpful in practical problem-solving and healthy coping skills. Parents may also benefit emotionally from family dinner time after a hectic day. Relaxing with your family and catching up helps us to slow down and enjoy the small moments and put the stresses of work to the back of our minds.  

Common Barriers 

Fishel (2016) reviewed the importance of family dinners and highlighted obstacles that families reported. I will highlight those factors here and include some ways the family can cooperate to prevail.  

  1. Lack of Time – This is the most common barrier that prevents families from spending dinner time together, my own family included. In our house, we try to have at least one meal together daily; sometimes, it is breakfast, other times it is lunch or dinner. Prepping meals ahead of time or choosing dinners that involve little preparation helps greatly. Cooperation from all family members also helps; one person can prepare the table while another cuts up vegetables or measures ingredients, and a third person starts cooking. Working together as a family to prepare our meals can be even more memorable and impactful for everyone.  
  2. Picky Eaters – This is very common for those with young children and can carry over to adolescence.  It can be challenging to plan for family meals when some family members have differing views on what is being served. To ensure everyone likes the menu, we can plan weekly meals together before grocery shopping. Again, this is a cooperative effort where parents and children can feel they have a part in the process. Another way is to have a simple backup so that the child can learn to prepare for themselves if they do not like the dinner. In my house, I always know my son will eat a salad with bleu cheese if he doesn’t like what we are having, so I always have those things on hand.  
  3. Tension at the Table – This can mean bringing your bad day in with you, distractions, or disagreeing topics. We can separate negativity from our day and home life to combat tensions at the table. Disagreeing topics will come up occasionally; remember to stay respectful to one another, and if it is uncomfortable, suggest moving on to a different subject. We should try to concentrate on what is here in front of us right now, and look forward to our time together and not let outside factors influence that. 
  4. Teens Don’t Want to Eat Dinner with Their Parents – Research has shown this is not true. Adolescents still value their chance to spend time with their parents at meals. This allows them to talk about their day and get reassurance or advice from parents and siblings. I can remember sitting at our dining room table in my teenage years, talking and laughing for a long time after we finished eating dinner. These times create memories for parents and children both. 

Setting Rules for Dinner Time

Zotevska & Martin-Bylund (2022) found that just as adults correct their child’s behavior at the dinner table and children can be seen doing the same. What can we make of this finding? We can hold each other accountable for the family’s dinnertime expectations, after all children will model the parent’s behaviors. When we set a standard for our households, we should allow our children to express themselves when they feel their parents are disrupting the standard. This might include disregarding manners, avoiding doing their part to help, or allowing distractions.

It will be no surprise that the main distraction I am talking about is having your phone at the table. We all know it is becoming too familiar for families to become distracted by technology, especially at the dinner table. We even see it at restaurants, often with children and parents on their own devices. Using technology at the dinner table decreases our face-to-face communication, decreasing the quality of the shared time (Latif et al., 2020). As our kids watch us on our phones during these times, it slowly becomes the new normal.

To try to stop this behavior, we can hold each other accountable. If you want your kids to refrain from using technology during time devoted to family, you should not use your phone. Talk with your kids about this expectation and tell them they can call you out just as you would for breaking this rule. Instead of relying on the phone for entertainment, we can ask family members to each come up with a topic of discussion for that night’s dinner.

Improved Relational Functioning 

Lawrence & Pilsco (2017) found that the frequency of all family members joining at mealtimes positively relates to communication and satisfaction. By setting the bar for them, we can teach our children a lot about how to function in their future relationships and families. Healthy communication can be challenging for some people when it does not have to be. Collaborating at mealtimes can teach children much about teamwork and how it takes every person to do their job, big or small.  There is also a sense of satisfaction when you have contributed to something so special to your family’s day.  

Understandably, parents often feel rushed at dinner time to plan, prepare, and serve a meal (Jones, 2018). In our house, we work together in many ways to contribute to spending time together as a family for mealtimes. For example, our son enjoys helping us pick vegetables in the garden or helping my mom gather eggs from her chicken coop. Seeing those efforts go into something we can enjoy together is fun for him. Meal planning is a special event for families. We meet to discuss what we want to eat for the week, and everyone has a say in the plans. Our son often will suggest his favorite things, including tacos or pasta, and he loves making what we call snack plates. Some of his favorite snack plates are made up of carrots and ranch, pickles, pretzels, and apples. Sometimes, his dad is the main cook, and sometimes, it is me, but either way, he is in there wanting to help prepare dinner.  

I hope readers have been inspired to make an extra effort in their families or relationships to create memories while enjoying communicating and supporting one another. It can sound like a lot to plan, cook, and clean, but there are so many small steps we can take to make the process more possible daily. Every step of this process can be a family or partner effort, learning more about each other, and shaping our relationships.  


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