Want to salvage this bygone staple? Temper your expectations and focus on connection.

  • Parents’ expectations for a family meal aren’t all wrong, but some may be unrealistic.
  • By putting a premium on conversation, parents and kids can realize more of the mental health benefits of eating together.
  • Keep meals light and fun, especially for young children, who may be inclined to rush through and want to leave the meal.

Parents who want to revive the family meal – so all can realize the proven benefits of eating together – would be well-served by going easy on the etiquette lessons and accepting life’s messiness as part of the bargain.

Yes, put away the electronics. Certainly prioritize conversation – which is largely the point, and something kids and adults report looking forward to at mealtime. But try to let go of some of the formalities and embrace more fluid expectations for how and even where those meals take place.

Instead of getting sloppy, what parents are really doing when they shift their expectations is giving themselves a better chance of having meals with their kids at all. That’s something researchers find families all too often skip altogether. To be sure, it’s important to understand parents’ expectations around what “counts” as a family meal, something experts have attempted to do by surveying parents. One such study in the journal Appetite noted that this includes having “most of the nuclear family gathered, having a conversation and an enjoyable atmosphere” – and that this wasn’t the time for screens or general chaos.

But while parents also expected this gathering would normally happen at home at the table or kitchen counter, experts say putting a premium on flexibility and connection (not just one or the other) makes it more likely you’ll come together more often. In short, a family meal anywhere is preferable to never finding the time to connect. Besides gathering at the kitchen table, what about having the occasional family dinner in the living room, eating together on the porch or having a picnic in the backyard?

It’s worth trying something new to make it work, since the researched benefits of family meals are wide-ranging for kids of all ages: from better academic performance to lower risk of depression and substance use and higher self-esteem. And yet the trends are for fewer – not more – families to eat together.

Bill Doherty, University of Minnesota professor and founder of Putting Family First, notes, “the number of families eating together has declined by one-third since the mid ’70’s.”

More than Mom’s Pot Roast

The power of gathering around the dinner table for a home-cooked meal (or even take-out on busier nights) is often underestimated. Sitting down for a family dinner is a habit you want to start early in your children’s lives because it gives you the opportunity to encourage and instill smart choices from childhood into adulthood.

On the whole (and in the long run), everyone’s diet is healthier with a home-cooked meal because you control its nutritional value. You know the importance of Vitamin E and how to make broccoli taste delicious. Experts believe the family dinner is one of the most essential factors associated with children having a nutritious diet. They learn to eat more fruits, vegetables, grains, and vitamin-rich foods. You’ll be giving your children the knowledge they need to make healthy eating choices a habit away from home and in the future.

Not only is the dinner table a chance to encourage your children to make healthy food choices, but you also will be able to help them make healthy lifestyle choices. The dinner table is a remarkable forum for family talk and for discovering what is going on in your children’s lives.  Having a block of time set aside to talk to your children allows you to stay updated on their school and social lives. Children’s vocabularies are broadened from exposure to grown-up conversation and they feel valued when they are included in the conversation.

So why not bring your kids back into that grown-up world at the dinner table – with less rigid, adult expectations.

Let children get involved in things like food preparation and meal planning, which has been shown to increase engagement, especially among young kids. Instead of giving them a reason to bolt as soon as possible, have the conversation revolve around their day, what they did – and then share more kid-friendly details about yours.

Yes, life’s demands and time limitations may still be a challenge. But with everyone more relaxed and comfortable together, you’ll all be that much more motivated to have dinner together again the next night (or the following) – whether at the table or not.