By Rachel Fortune, MD, FAAP National Medical Director for Newport Academy
We all know that eating together as a family is a smart thing to do—and an increasing amount of research is proving just how smart it is. Studies show that the benefits for kids of eating family dinners on a regular basis include better grades; a healthier diet, as well as good eating habits later in life; a decreased risk of smoking, drinking and drug use; lower rates of depression; and a more positive outlook overall.
That said, as someone who lives in a household with two children and two parents who both work outside the home, I know how hard it is to make dinner together a reality without twisting ourselves into pretzels trying to make our schedules and family members fall into line.
But the good news is that family dinner doesn’t have to be a daily event to make a powerful positive impact. Eating together just two or three nights a week can go a long way toward keeping families intact and making sure lines of communication stay open.
Here are five ways to make family dinner happen—and to make it more fun once you get to the table.
Don’t make food an issue
Especially when kids are young, or when they have a health or weight concern, it can be hard for parents not to focus on what they’re eating. As a pediatrician specializing in Adolescent Medicine, I understand the pressure parents feel to instill healthy eating habits. But pushing kids to eat everything on their plate, or withholding dessert because they haven’t finished their vegetables, is more likely to create conflict than the desired result. Serve a healthy meal, and gently encourage your child to sample whatever’s new on their plate. You might even share this stat: Researchers say that we need to taste something multiple times before we figure out whether we like it or not. Getting kids involved in the cooking process will also encourage healthy eating habits and a willingness to try new foods.
Put it in the schedule
If you don’t plan it, it won’t work. It’s not just the eating part that you need to make time for—it’s also the grocery shopping, the cooking and the driving time. If you pick up the kids at six, after soccer practice and a play date, odds are that it won’t be a good night for cooking and eating together. Make family dinner a priority by planning for it a few days in advance, and build in enough time to make sure the preparation process is pleasurable and you don’t sit down at the table feeling stressed and rushed.
Turn off your phones
Remember when TV dinners were a thing? Now it’s not just television, but also a half dozen other devices that can distract us from each other at mealtime. Keep the dinner hour (or even half hour) sacred, with phones and other electronics turned off. That goes for parents, too! Show your kids that your focused time with them is more important than answering your calls or checking your e-mail.
Ask open-ended questions
When you ask your child if she had a good day, you’re giving her the message that you want her to have had a good day. She doesn’t want to disappoint you, so she’s more likely to just nod in response and let you believe that everything’s okay, even if it isn’t. Instead, ask questions like: What happened today? How were your classes? How did that test go? If you give your kids the sense that you’re open to anything they have to say, whether positive or not so much, they’re more likely to share what’s really going on in their lives. One way to facilitate sharing is to make it a game: Go around the table and have each person talk about one new thing they learned that day.
Tell your kids about your day
Family dinner isn’t just about us listening to our children, it’s about our kids learning more about who we are as people, not just parents. Share about what you did while they were in school, while respecting appropriate boundaries and being careful not to give information that will needlessly upset your children. My daughters are six and nine, and they know what I do for a living, and that my work is about helping adolescents become healthier and happier. Whether we work in or outside the home, it’s helpful for children to understand how we spend our days, why what we do is important to us, and how it helps provide for them.
Try these approaches, and you’ll have a better chance of making family dinner not just something to cross off your to-do list, but a part of the day that everyone looks forward to.
Rachel Fortune, MD, National Medical Director for Newport Academy, is a pediatrician specializing in Adolescent Medicine. She is an expert in the treatment of eating disorders, menstrual irregularities and mental health disorders. Before joining Newport Academy, Dr. Fortune completed her fellowship at the Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver, Colorado, and then worked with adolescent patients at Yale University School of Medicine/Yale New Haven Hospital.