Most parents agree that family dinner is important and should be a priority—even as we struggle to find time and too often end up eating dinner on the road or in front of a TV or tablet some nights.
Research finds that families are less stressed, function better, that kids tend to eat better, and everything from their self-esteem to motivation increases when everyone gathers around the table regularly for meals.
The busyness of life can make this tough. But besides carving out precious time, there’s another strategy that shouldn’t be overlooked to bring kids to the table: Simple as it sounds, it’s important to make meals fun.
Leaning into the age-old adage that the family that plays together stays together, here are ways you can do just that—to make what limited time your family has for meals something the whole family looks forward to, and prioritizes.
Fun Approaches to Explore
As dinners become a routine part of your family culture, children especially begin to feel important because they are contributing and being treated as the special people they are. My now adult children report doing many of these suggestions I did with them with their children:
• “Double Dessert Night”
Once a month or any night you happen to have enough, shock your children by announcing that they’re having not one, but two desserts after dinner.
• Assistant to the Chef
You’ll see more of your child if you enlist his services to fill the breadbasket, carry dishes to the table, fill the salt and pepper shakers, or wash the lettuce.
Get into a routine of working together with your child to prepare dinner and other meals.
• Candlelight Dinner
Once every few weeks, put fresh flowers on the table, light dinner candles, and take a moment to express gratitude that you are a family.
• Breakfast for Dinner
Why wait until tomorrow morning to serve a breakfast they love? It’s unusual enough to be remembered and especially easy when time is short. Serve a dinner of waffles, pancakes, French toast or another typical morning meal such as bacon and eggs.
• Who’s Got Dinner Tonight?
Assign each member of the family a night that he is “responsible” for dinner. Everybody helps with the preparation. Even a 4-year-old can take hot dogs out of the package, tear lettuce leaves for a salad or pour chocolate sauce on ice cream.
• Team up to Make It Memorable
Cook something with your child as often as you can. It could be the main course—something relatively easy like spaghetti for younger kids, or a bit more layered, literally or figuratively, like lasagna for older children—a side, or dessert like cookies or cupcakes. Simple recipes and prepared mixes are good choices for children who usually can’t wait to eat whatever they make.
Note: Invest in a children’s cookbook to make cooking more understandable for your young chefs.
• Pizza Party
Buy prepared pizza crust from your supermarket or only the dough from your local pizza parlor. The children punch down the dough, then stretch and shape it. Have them spread their favorite toppings and the pizza is ready to bake.
• Create Your Own Pop-up Restaurant
Transform the kitchen into a restaurant and assign everyone different roles—owner, chef, waiter, customers, cashier.
The chef asks, “Do we have the ingredients to make tonight’s meal?”
The waiter takes orders and practices writing or tests his memory. The customers learn to be patient until the food arrives. And the cashier takes Monopoly money when the customers are ready to pay.
You’ve just turned your kitchen into a learning center for your young children who can practice their new skills when grandparents, aunts, cousins and other relatives visit.
• Family and Friends Meal
Allow your child to invite a friend to dinner now and then.
Your child will be able to deepen that relationship and may be more comfortable discussing issues that arise outside the home if she has someone her own age present. This tradition can, and should, be continued throughout adolescence when children may turn to friends more often than to parents for support.
• Eat Out(side)
Nothing wrong with taking the family to a restaurant occasionally. You can also feel as if you are doing something different by having dinner on the front porch or a picnic blanket in the yard.
Limited on where you can eat outside your home? Go to a local park and pull up at a picnic table. The point is, weather permitting, to enjoy each others’ company somewhere new in the open air.
• Best and Worst
Go around the table and have each person tell you what was the best and worst part of his day. Parents respond, too—or go first to get the conversation started.
• Be “Old-Fashioned”
“Old-fashioned” dinners where family members talk without distractions can go a long way in connecting with children and bonding the family. And for any family dinner, you should make it a point to put away or turn off one trapping of modern life that is a distraction for all: electronics.
Avoiding Dangers Down the Road
By establishing family dinners as a tradition in your household, you are increasing the likelihood of your children’s living healthy lives in the future. Research from the University of Minnesota and The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University indicate that teenagers who regularly eat dinner with their families have healthier body images, adopt healthier eating habits that can protect them from eating disorders, get higher grades, and are less likely to use drugs or alcohol, among many other benefits.
While it may seem difficult, if not impossible, to rearrange the family’s schedule to fit in a solid half-hour or hour for dinner every night, it is a step that is crucial to children and teen’s healthy development. Ideally, you should shoot to do this five times a week. So, spread the word that dinner is not optional in your house, and bring the family together on as many nights as you possibly can.