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Reaping the Many Benefits of Family Dinners

by Anne Fishel, Ph.D.


Anne Fishel, Ph.D.

Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D. is a therapist, professor of psychology and author of Treating the Adolescent in Family Therapy: A Developmental and Narrative Approach. Read more »

Sorry, Anne Fishel, Ph.D. is no longer taking questions.

As a therapist, I often see families at my home office in the late afternoon. Many days, as I race downstairs, hoping to restore the brittle ties between moody teens and their discouraged parents, I throw a chicken into the oven first. As the smells build, I have the fantasy of saying: "Don't waste your time here. Go home right now and cook a meal and eat it together. Here are some recipes. Now, go." Instead, I often make mealtime a focus of therapy, and I have found that many disconnected families find their way back to each other through a nightly commitment to family dinners. Why this zeal about family dinners?

Over the last 15 years, a large number of scientific studies have confirmed what parents have known intuitively for a long time: sitting down to a family meal is good for the spirit, the brain, and the body. Recent studies link regular family dinners (5 or more meals a week) with a host of teenage behaviors that parents pray for: lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and depression, as well as higher grade-point averages and self-esteem. Dinner conversation is a great booster of vocabulary for young children, and stories told around the table about parents and grandparents help to build self-esteem and resilience. The icing on the cake is that regular family meals also lower the rates of obesity and eating disorders in children.

As a family therapist here's what else I've learned about family dinners:

1. You can tell a lot about your family from your dinnertime ritual.

Spend five minutes talking about your family's dinner. Who sits where at the table, and how were the seats chosen? Who decides the menu, and what happens if someone doesn't like the meal? What do you talk about at dinner? Are there topics or emotions that are taboo? What is the symbolic meaning given to food? Who shops, cooks, serves, cleans up? And what do these roles say about your family's ideas about gender roles? How is dinnertime protected from technology, like texting at the table, answering the phone, watching TV? What did you want to carry forward from the family you grew up in?

2. Family dinner is play.

Mealtime is to families what sex is to couples, what music is to adolescents, and what water and sand are to toddlers. Mealtime is a medium of play - a way for families to have pleasure with one another. It's important that the cook (or cooks) not feel overburdened or unappreciated, that children feel that their food preferences are considered, and that all family members have a chance to speak at the table. You might ask: "What would make dinnertime more fun?"

3. Change the routine as your children grow.

Your child's appetite, ability to cook, and readiness to participate in dinner conversation all change dramatically from infancy through young adulthood.

When you have toddlers, that is a critical time to start regular family dinners, despite the challenge of sitting still for long. Serve food family-style in bowls that youngsters can reach out and try, and allow your kids to see you eating food with gusto. Don't use reward or punishment to encourage eating, and know that toddlers may need up to 15 presentations of the same food before they try it. Any child who "helps" to make dinner is more likely to want to try it. The whole process of mixing, stirring, and making a mess fascinates young children, so let them stir the soup and crumble the cheese.

As your children become school-aged, they are learning to share and compromise. At dinner, they will want to make meal choice fair and will want equitable airtime to speak. As they become more aware of the world around them through watching TV and visiting other children's houses, they may want to experiment with new foods. It can be fun to recreate foods they've eaten elsewhere, like making pizza or tacos. And they can start to be critical consumers, engaging in questions like why do TV ads advertise fast food? Or, why do schools offer unhealthy foods?

During adolescence, family dinners tend to decrease, although most teens will concede that they enjoy having dinner at home. The dinner hour may need to be more flexible to accommodate sports practices and play rehearsals, or family meals may move to other times, like late-night snacks.

Since adolescence is a time of exploration and separation, your kids may declare that they have food preferences that are unlike yours. When my sons became teens, they both started cooking red meat, delighting their father and differentiating them from me, a lifelong avoider of red meat. Agree that dinner will be off limits for discussing conflicts, like curfews or whose turn it is to take out the trash.

4. Pay attention to table conversation.

Talk at the table is one of the richest language experiences of your child's life, and it's just the kind I try to foster in therapy--everyone taking turns, telling stories, offering explanations, listening to each other. When else besides around the table (or in therapy) do we sit and talk for several minutes, with family members offering lots of different comments on one topic? Make sure that the quieter members can speak without interruptions, and that you add variety to table talk - not only what you did at school today, but also talk about what ingredients are in the food, and about funny, poignant, and courageous stories about other family members. This is a great time to remember how your family emigrated or a difficult life choice that Uncle Albert made, or how your grandparents met and decided to elope. Dinner is also a time to talk about plans for the future, politics, the neighborhood, and music.

So, let's talk about your family dinners--What do your dinners say about your family, and how do you get your family to eat together?

Sorry, Anne Fishel, Ph.D. is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.


Comments

Frances writes...

Dr. Fishel is a really sensible person! I love her suggestion that late-night snacks might be a family meal time in a household with adolescents.

Michelle writes...

It's nice to see that being creative about what constitutes a family meal can still bring the benefits to the family that a traditional family meal might.

I do wonder if there isn't some advice you can give for families dealing with ADHD issues. Some kids just can't sit still from the time they get out of school until bedtime...like they've "used up" all their sitting still capabilities for the day.

Anne? writes...

You raise an interesting question, Michelle, about how to make mealtime flexible enough so that kids with ADHD can participate, even after a long day of sitting at school. I think this is a challenge for most young kids too. One strategy is to introduce elements to the family meal that make it clear that meal sitting is different from school sitting. So, for example, everyone might wear p.j.'s, or you might play music during the meal, or eat by candlelight. Another idea is to try to harness a child's activity in the service of the meal-- "While you're up, would you get the water pitcher."

Some kids who really are spent by the evening may do better with a few breakfasts during the week being the main family meal of the day. There is nothing so sacred about dinner that it can't be replaced by other meals. One challenge at breakfast is that the adults tend to be focused on getting everyone up and on their way, so it may be hard for them to relax.

No matter what strategy, it's most important to set your goals in a realistic way. A ten-minute happy dinner "hour" is better than a 60-minute dinner hour filled with scolding and disappointment.

Aviva writes...

What wonderful and unintimidating advice you have for families about sharing mealtime. I'm going to link to it on my blog, http://thescramble.com/healthymenuplanning/.

Anne? writes...

Thank you, Aviva. I love your website and wish I could have visited it when my kids were young to get practical, healthy and imaginative ideas for family dinners.

Pearl writes...

What a wonderful analysis of family meals. I remember the challenges of sitting down all together when I was in high school so distinctly. As a recent college graduate, this posting also reminds me of the several hours I often spent in the dining hall during dinner. I made so many friends at school early on by eating together; later on, my roommates and I used dinner time like my family did--to share ideas, strengthen our relationships, and keep up-to-date in each other's lives.

Anne? writes...

Pearl, your insights about college dining make me think about how family dinners extend beyond adolescence. When we're fortunate, as you seem to have been, to grow up with warm family dinners, we can take home with us. But even for those who haven't had regular family meals, college dining with a group of friends can give a second chance to experience the benefits of sharing a meal and conversation. Some scientific studies point to the benefits of regular family meals that show up years later-- less disordered eating and more eating of fruits and vegetables in young adults.

Michael writes...

A part of our nighty family meal is to ask, "what was the favorite part of your day?" That's been a great source of laughter, conversation, and interaction.

We also advocate for other "routines." Two others we stick to are the morning routine and a bedtime routine. Mornings involved some 'roles' - as parents, I take the fix-breakfast-and-school-lunches role, and my wife is the get-the-kids-moving role (we still debate about which is more difficult!). As the kids have gotten older, they are more active participants (helping to make their lunches and/or breakfast).

At bedtime, we still stop what we're all doing and finish the day with prayers and any final thoughts/conversation, while the youngest of our two kids is in bed (the older high-schooler has to complete homework).

Having worked in preK-12 education, it's my belief that the positive power of ROUTINE in a family's life is grossly underestimated and under-valued. We have let our culture's mile-a-second pace take over our most basic, daily routines. And, we're encouraged to live our lives with more distractions - routines are too often seen as a thing of the past.

Thanks for encouraging this important dialogue!

Anne? writes...

Michael, your picture of family life is filled with health and vitality. I agree that children and adults alike benefit from being able to count on different routines, often around the times of day that would otherwise be a bit chaotic, like the morning or when everyone comes home exhausted and needy at the end of the day. You sound like you and your wife have flexibly altered the routines to accommodate the changing needs of children so that they are more active participants now. I think that a family's ability to keep changing a routine to suit the developmental changes of the children is itself a hallmark of a family's strength.
I wonder what you think is the difference between a ritual and a routine. I think that a routine helps get tasks done in a family, and keeps order, often because roles are clearly defined, like in your morning ritual. Rituals, by contrast, tend to speak more to our identity as a family, and include symbolic or metaphors communication, and at their core, make us feel connected to one another. I think your bedtime "routine," is more of a ritual.

Laura writes...

Great blog! As someone who works with a lot of young people struggling with eating disorders, your advice is right on the money in terms of what we encourage parents to do.......Thank you for putting it so beautifully.

Anne? writes...

Thank you, Laura. I've been intrigued with the link between regular family meals and a decrease in eating disorders. In a 2008 study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, researchers found that girls who ate regularly (5 or more meals a week) with their families were 30% less likely to develop eating disorders. (Neumark-Sztainer, D. et al. (2008). Family meals and disordered eating in adolescents, Arch Pediatric Adolescent Med, 162,17-22).
I wonder what about family dinners gives this protection. Is it that children learn to eat in more healthy ways at the dinner table, or that they come to link pleasure, connection and food, in a way that someone with an eating disorder struggles with?

Sherri writes...

Thank you, I really enjoyed & appreciated this article. As a busy family with 3 kids (ages 9, 12 & 14) - in 3 different schools this year - family dinner can be a challenge, especially with the oldest who fights it: "I don't want to talk. Can't we just watch TV?" But I find if I can get past initial lack of enthusiasm, once they get started, you can't get them to stop. They enjoy being heard and they even enjoy hearing from siblings, as much as they can't stand each other in general right now - oh, the competition!

Jacqueline writes...

My youngest is three and it is hard to get him to sit at the table for more than five minutes while we eat dinner. I know that his stomach is smaller, so he gets fuller faster, but is it o.k. for him to get up while my daughter and I finish eating? I figured that he would start to understand that being at the table is a good thing, but I refuse to force him to sit at the table. I was force as a young child to sit at the table and it made me hate dinner time. Am I doing it wrong by letting him get up whenever he wants?

Anne? writes...

I agree wholeheartedly that it doesn't make sense to force your 3 year-old to stay at the table, particularly since that is a childhood memory you want to change. I have some ideas for encouraging, cajoling, even enticing preschoolers to stay at the table.
Give them ice pops made with fresh juice. It will take young kids about five minutes to finish one pop so this can extend their sitting time.
Ask your child to guess the ingredients in each dish, and include a secret ingredient (like a dash of cinnamon or a splash of soy sauce).
Invite your child to stir a pot, crumble the cheese, set the timer, chose a menu from two choices offered — having a hand in making the meal creates pride of ownership.
Avoid having a revolving door at the dinner table. If your child wants to leave the table, let him, but perhaps only once. After two departures, the child should know that dinnertime is over. This is different from forcing a child to sit, but takes away any positive reinforcement derived from leaving the table.
Present each part of the meal as a course. For example, peas as an appetizer, pasta with pesto sauce as the main course, and orange slices for dessert. Maybe your son can help clear and bring on each course which will give him a reason to get up and return.
Play a word game at the table that really engages your son. I'm sure you have ideas about what he might find fun. Here are some games I used to play when my sons were preschoolers—“I ran into someone in the supermarket today. Can you ask yes-or-no questions to guess who it was?” Or, “Close your eyes and I'll take something off the table. Open your eyes and tell me what it is". Or, "What was the silliest thing that happened today to each of you?"

Ayesha Aleem writes...

Originally from India, thinking of dinner at home, my father insisted early on that we all eat dinner together. Even though we had our own schedules - school, work, extra classes - we tried to wait for the other members before sitting down to eat. It was the only time we got together, apart from the car ride to school in the morning. My mother made most of the meals and then we got a cook (we always preferred our mother's cooking!). After dinner, my sister and I usually collected the dishes. We took turns washing and drying the dishes. No dishwasher. This arrangement lasted while we lived in a "joint family", with our grandparents - a common practice in India.

Now, my family lives independently and each member cleans up after themselves after a meal. Often, we just get take out. My family is hardly an example of a typical Indian family. We eat out most of the time. We love food and love trying different kinds of it. So we like going to restaurants because it's where we're most relaxed and, in our opinion, eat nearly-perfect food. Most of our talking is done before the food arrives and in the car ride back home. We almost always go to dinner as a family when we eat out. Texting at the table, being on your cell phone for too long and even reading (like a newspaper) are no-nos. Dinner while watching TV is frowned upon but the rare exceptions are made. Religion, politics, our day, the news and family gossip are popular topics of conversation. We don't talk about sex at the table or anywhere else. Period.

As with many family practices, I see myself incorporating the basics of dinnertime with my family in a family that I may begin one day. But I will improvise, much like my parents did when they started theirs.

I look forward to reading more of your blog posts.

Anne? writes...

Thank you for your generous description of family dinners in India. I see a portrait of a family who has been able to improvise and change over time without losing the essence of what is important. I'm struck by the important rules and unstated guidelines that you and your family have about the absence of technology at the table, and wonder if that was ever discussed or was just understood as part of the family's identity. The idea that family dinners don't have to take place at home is a really important one. It seems that your interest in trying new foods takes you out to new restaurants as a family. Other families I know also have family dinners at soccer and baseball fields, or rely on take-out for many dinners--decisions often based on time constraints-- and do not diminish the importance of getting together as a family to eat and talk.

jessica writes...

I live at home with my parents an I have two kids. My little brother an sister also live with us. I make dinner every night religiously but my mom don't join because she so depressed. She stays in her room all day an night she only gets up to go to the bathroom it makes me sad. I don't know how to get her mobile again! My boys are 4 an 2 it makes me so sad she has been like this for eight years now. I can't afford to move out on my own so I guess what I am asking how do I get my family to pull together?

Anne? writes...

Jessica, it sounds like you are already working hard to pull your family together. As you can probably tell, I think that family dinners are a powerful resource for families, but they don't solve all problems. I think that your mother needs professional help for a depression that has been going on for so many years. Perhaps, you could offer to go with her to talk to a psychiatrist (ask an internist for a referral) who specializes in depression.

Beth writes...

Hi Annie,
The blog is great and I will share it with others. I was reminded of when Rachel left for college and Jason was really sad. I asked him what time he would be home for dinner. He said we could no longer have family dinners because we were no longer a family. We were able to have a good conversation about loss and change.

Thanks,Beth

trisha writes...

how can i get a 10yr boy and his 5yr sister to get along better he screams at her and this morning they were spiting food at each other

Stacy writes...

What practical and realistic advice about making family dinners work for all sorts of families! It inspires me to keep on with family dinners even when we're all feeling frazzled and cranky. And I'm definitely going to use your advice about the sitting thing with my three-year-old. I've linked to your article in my blog post, "Family Dinners: The Imperfect by Important Meal Ideal" on CurrentMom.com - http://www.currentmom.com/currentmom/2009/09/family-dinners.html.

Chevonne writes...

question...why has my 3 1/2 yr. old started crying throughout the day at daycare??? when asked she doesn't know why (she says). or she'll say something off the wall like her mosquito bite hurts...pretty sure that is not it. the changes have been...my husband is out of town on business (nothing new though) and our 1 yr. old has moved up a class from the baby room. (but they are not in the same class) is this a stage? is there something i can do? should i be worried? thank you!

Pam writes...

Chevonne, Our four-year-old changed this year about attending school, but we realized that it's because he's become very interested in some things at home (e.g. dinosaurs and the new Dinosaur Train cartoon) and he just wanted to stay home to play with them and/or watch the shows. He was kind of moody to begin with, even in Sunday school, but has gotten past it even though he sometimes still asks, whereas previously he was all gung-ho to head to school. It helped when we realized why he was acting this way.

On the topic of dinnertime, I think it's really important to pay attention to what you discuss at the table. A good way to send a teenager away from the table (and you) is to start bringing up every negative/disciplinary issue on your mind. Do that before or after meals, not at the table. I think everyone should have the opportunity to eat in peace.

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