In an ideal world, your family would sit down at a reasonable hour every night for a hot, made-from-scratch meal. There’d be no phones or TV. Nobody would be fidgeting. And conversation would be fun, interesting and a reminder to everyone of how much they love and appreciate one another.
The reality for many people is more like meatloaf hitting the fan. Unpredictable work schedules, after-school sports practices, last-minute grocery trips, fidgety children and distracting screens can make family dinners something to dread rather than look forward to.
Turns out, sitting down as a family may be more important than you think. “Studies show that kids do better in school, are healthier physically and psychologically, and are less likely to get into risky behavior,” says Aviva Goldfarb, a self-proclaimed family dinner expert and chief executive of the firm The Six O’Clock Scramble, which helps families plan meals in order to have enjoyable family dinner experiences. “Obviously there’s something about having this connection.”
And so, a lot of people do sit down for dinner as a family. But that doesn’t mean it’s always an enjoyable experience. In a recent Houzz poll, more than 1,200 users said they eat dinner as a family every night versus about 350 who said they didn’t. It would take a different poll to determine whether the ones who do sit down are actually having positive experiences, or if the ones who don’t sit down are doing so to avoid an unpleasant time.
We gathered tips from Goldfarb, as well as from Houzz users, to help you make family dinners more successful and enjoyable, which matters more than what’s on the plate. “I’m a huge believer in making the dinner table a positive, stress-free zone,” she says.
1. Plan ahead. Goldfarb says most people don’t think about what they’re going to make for dinner until between 4 and 6 p.m. “Then they have to stop at the store after picking up the kids from day care, and it becomes a logistical nightmare,” she says. “That causes many people to just say, ‘Forget it,’ and heat up a frozen pizza or give the kids chicken nuggets, and then the adults will make something different later.”
Goldfarb, a mother of two, recommends taking time on the weekend to plan dinners for the rest of the week. Using meal planners and keeping recipes simple help cut down on the chaos.
2. Make it special. Try using candles, good dinnerware, a nice tablecloth or eating outside at least once a week to create special moments to look forward to.
It seems to work for Houzz user tooky58. “We even use real napkins every night. It took my husband awhile to get used to it but now he loves it! Plus, our paper towels last so much longer.”
But whatever you do, be sure to keep it casual. You don’t want family members feeling as though they need to rent a tuxedo for dinner on a Tuesday night at home.
3. Ditch the tech. This should seem obvious, but it’s worth repeating: Family dinner should be about connecting with one another, not checking Facebook. Don’t allow phones, computers or TV during meals. “Focus on the human eye-contact connections,” Goldfarb says. “It builds great conversation skills and social skills for kids.”
It’s OK to make exceptions, she adds, such as eating dinner together as a family while watching big events like the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards, or having a pizza-and-popcorn movie night on the weekend.
4. Get everyone involved. If possible, have each family member be responsible for planning and cooking a meal one night a week. Encourage kids to smell spices and choose which one to add to the recipe. “The more they feel like they have control, the more likely they are to eat the food,” Goldfarb says.
5. Be flexible. Don’t try to force family dinners if it just isn’t feasible. “Even if you can’t have family dinner every night because of work schedules or kids’ practice schedules, you can do at least one night a week if not more,” Goldfarb says.
6. Get talking. Talk about your day, and make sure to give each family member a turn. Don’t fall into the trap of talking just with your spouse. Involve everyone. If conversation runs out, consider playing a word game. Goldfarb likes starting a story and then going around the table allowing each person to add a word to the tale.
I like to play an interview game with my kids, who are 5 and 3. Each person gets a turn being the interviewee, and we all get to ask the interviewee personal questions like: “What’s your favorite color?” “Who’s your best friend?” “What’s your favorite food?” “What’s your favorite book?” And so on. You’d be amazed at how their little faces light up when they get to talk about themselves. And with young kids, you can repeat this game almost every night, as their answers always seem to change.
7. What not to discuss. “Nobody is allowed to talk about what anyone else is eating,” Goldfarb says. “And it’s no business how much someone is or isn’t eating.”
Avoid calling out someone for eating too fast, too slow or not enough. Don’t berate a child for not eating his or her broccoli. All this can have a negative impact on the people at the table. If children start to dread dinner with the family every night because they know they will be yelled at for not eating their vegetables, or they’ll be harangued about college applications, then it’s not going to be a positive experience.
The same goes for the kids too. Don’t allow kids to yuck your yum. “For me, complaining about the food is a no-go,” Goldfarb says. “It’s important to express gratitude even if it’s not your favorite thing.”
She says she taught her kids at an early age to say, “I know you worked hard on this, Mom, but it’s not my favorite.”
It’s OK to reinforce manners, such as not talking with your mouth full of food, but Goldfarb stresses that it shouldn’t turn into a lecture. The point is to keep things positive. “The experience is more important than manners,” she says.
8. Sit down hungry. If you get home from work and munch on snacks, then when dinner comes around, you’re probably not going to have much of an appetite. It’s also important for kids to establish a rule that cuts off snack time well before dinner so everyone arrives at the table hungry and ready to eat. They will be more likely to try new foods too.
9. Keep meals simple. Don’t try to be the next Top Chef. “I’ve found that the more ingredients there are, the more it’s less likely everyone will eat it and it be a success,” Goldfarb says.