We have all heard the phrase “Family-on-the-go.” Soccer practices, ballet lessons, theater rehearsals and all of the other extra-curricular activities that begin during the new school year that have us racing through fast food restaurants or eating the majority of our meals separate from our family members. What’s worse, we somehow have missed one of the most significant activity’s in our daily schedule—Family dinner.

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Ahhh yes, family dinner! The memories of spilling my juice across the table every night while my parents were trying to contain their aggravation. My sisters kicking each other under the table and having one of the longest deadly stare-offs I’ve seen to date. Launching green peas, one by one, into the mashed potatoes and waiting for my father to press the palms of his hands onto the table, slowly stand up, and interrogate us one by one. “All right girls, who did it? Who’s pea (pee) is in the mashed potatoes?” Then we would all burst out into laughter, thinking we outsmarted our parents again.

If the phone rang, we weren’t allowed to answer it. The television was off, and this was our time as a family to sit down and not only, lovingly irritate one another, but more importantly we communicated and checked in with each other. Looking back now, family dinner, not only created a lot of great memories for my family and me, but it was also a very unifying ritual and bonding experience.

Family eating dinner

Eating in front of the television discourages family conversations. 

 

Unfortunately, the average American family today reports eating a family meal together less than once per week! (Harris Poll 2014) So, if most American families aren’t eating dinner together regularly then what harm can this cause? Well, in a recent book entitled The Surprising Power of Family Meals, author Miriam Weinstein states:

What if I told you that there was a magic bullet—something that would improve the quality of your daily life, your children’s chances of success in the world, [and] your family’s health. . .? Something that is inexpensive, simple to produce, and within the reach of virtually everyone? (Weinstein, 2005, p. 1)

I’ll give you one guess on what that magic bullet is? You got it—Family Dinner.

According to the Journal of Adolescent Health, kids and teens who share family dinners 3 or more times per week:

  • Are less likely to be overweight
  • Are more apt to eat healthy foods
  • Perform better academically
  • Are less likely to engage in risky behaviors (drugs, alcohol, sexual activity)
  • Have better relationships with their parents (bonding time)
  • Have fewer emotional and behavioral problems, greater emotional well-being, more trusting and helpful behaviors towards others and higher life satisfaction

Here are 5 Things you can begin doing right away  to help you add family meals into your busy schedule:

  1. Try adding at least one more meal time per week and increasing slowly to 3-4 times per week. (Remember that if a family dinner isn’t possible during the week then consider Saturday or Sunday for a family breakfast, lunch or dinner.)
  2. Have fun with it! Schedule a family dinner theme night; for example Taco-Tuesday or Wacky-Meal Wednesday.
  3. Have your kids help with dinner for example: Make your own pizza night. Be sure to implement “Make a Mess, Clean Your Mess” as well!
  4. Prepare your meals ahead of time so they are ready to go on busy weeknights and include your family in the process, from grocery shopping to cooking, to setting the table and cleaning up.
  5. Make a rule of turning off all electronic devices. No cell phone calls, iPads, or TV during meal times

 

Family making pizza for dinner

So now you are armed with the benefits and the “how-to” of family dinner. But, what happens when you finally get everyone seated at the dinner table and all you hear are the clanking of silverware against the plates and crickets in the background?

For many people, getting their kids to open up about their day is like trying to crack the Da Vinci Code. Well, we’ve thought of that! Here are some conversation starters to help you break the “Kid-Vinci code of silence.”

conversation dinner table

Conversation Starters:

High and Lows At my family table we like to play the “Highs and Lows” game. We ask the children what was your high for the day? What was your low for the day? Meaning, what was the best thing that happened and the worst thing that happened in your day? This activity encourages kids to think about their day in detail and will allow them to open up to you about their important events. The good news is this can work for kids of all ages. You can replace the words high and low with best and worst or most awesome and not so awesome.—you get the idea.

Kids also like to hear stories about their parents: (How did mom and dad meet? What kind of jobs did you have when you were growing up? What was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you? What was school like when you were a kid?)

And if you need more conversation starters here’s a few to help get your kid thinking and sharing about their school day:

1) Did anyone do anything nice for you?
2) What was the nicest thing you did for someone else?
3) Which playground skill do you plan to master this year?
4) If one of your classmates could be teacher for a day, which one would you choose? Why?
5)What is one thing you hope to learn before the school year is over?
6) If a spaceship came down from Mars and could take two kids back to Mars with them which kids do you wish the aliens would take? (This question helps reveal which kids possibly could be causing your child some problems at school. Kids don’t always open up to parents about their troubles in school. This is an indirect approach, which can help make your kid feel safe about opening up.)

Having a family dinner more often will benefit the whole family, physically and mentally. If your family schedule is jam-packed like most families these days, try to view family dinner as an important family activity and add it to your calendar. You’ll feel more in-tuned with your children, and your children will feel more comfortable opening up and sharing their daily events with you. And who know’s maybe one day you’ll have the pleasure of finding “pea” in your mashed potatoes too!

 

 

References:
Weinstein, M. (2005) The Surprising Power of Family Meals. Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press.
The Harris Poll® #82, November 13, 2013
By Larry Shannon-Missal, Harris Poll Research Manager
Family Dinners, Communication, and Mental Health in Canadian Adolescents
Elgar, Frank J. et al. 
Journal of Adolescent Health, Volume 52, Issue 4, 433 – 438