The importance of family meals isn’t exactly news–but with everything that parents and kids have going on, from work to extracurriculars, sit-down meals can often be pushed off a family’s ever-growing to-do list. That’s why it’s important to remember that having dinner–or really any meal–together isn’t actually a big time burden, but offers major benefits. According to Dr. Anne Fishel, a family and couples therapist, cofounder of The Family Dinner Project and the author of Home For Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids, the average American dinner is only 22 minutes long, and prep takes about only 20 minutes. Meanwhile, the benefits of family dinner–including enhanced vocabulary, protection from high-risk behaviors, and improved cardiovascular health–can last a lifetime.
We caught up with Dr. Fishel (who will be speaking at this year’s 92Y Parenting Conference on April 17)–to learn more about the importance of family dinners for raising healthy, happy kids.
[Editor’s Note: To learn more about the conference, click HERE!]
What is it about dinner in particular that makes it such an important time for families to come together?
For most American families, dinnertime is the most reliable time of the day to hang out together; there are few other settings where the family gathers. If we still farmed together, rehearsed in string quartets, and told stories while quilting together on the front porch, dinner wouldn’t be so important. But, it is the number one time when families say that they connect with each other, with carpooling in second place.
For most of us, food plays a comforting role and helps us relax a bit, but there is nothing inherently magical about dinner. The real power lies in the quality of the relationships around the table. The most important ingredient for a great family dinner is a warm atmosphere where everyone is invited to talk and to listen… Dinner offers a daily chance to build a sense of connection that can extend beyond the dinner table. Kids who feel connected have a seatbelt on the potholed road of childhood and adolescence.
Beyond family bonding, what are some of the other key benefits of a family meal? Do you have to have a sit-down dinner every night to reap these benefits?
Over the past 20 years, about 100 scientific studies show that family dinners are great for the body, brain, and the spirit.
In terms of the body, kids who eat family dinners have better cardiovascular health and are less likely to be obese. Home-cooked meals are lower in calories, fat, and sugar, and higher in fruits and vegetables than restaurant or take-out meals. As an extra bonus, studies show that family dinners continue to pay dividends even after kids leave home. Teens who grow up having regular family dinners are less likely as young adults to be obese, and are more likely to eat a healthy amount of fruits and vegetables. Even having just two to three meals a week with the family was found to be protective.
In terms of the brain, years of research from the Home-School Study of Language and Literacy Development have shown that dinner conversation is a terrific vocabulary booster for young children – even better than reading aloud to them.
Rare words, or those that go beyond the 3,000 most common ones, are 10 times more likely to show up in dinner conversation than in storybooks. When parents tell a story at the dinner table, they usually include many words that a young child hasn’t yet learned but can understand from the context of the story… Regular family dinners are more highly correlated with good grades than doing homework, sports, or art.
In terms of the spirit, or mental health, family dinners protect kids from high-risk behaviors like depression, school problems, binge eating, substance abuse, and early sexual behavior. It’s not just that mealtime prevents high-risk behaviors—it also promotes helpful ones like positive mood in teens and a more optimistic view of the future.
I often think that I could be out of business as a family therapist if more families had regular family dinners!
It’s hard to find time between work schedules, extracurriculars, homework, etc.—what would you say to a family who believes they don’t have time to cook and sit down and enjoy a meal together? How can they make time?
Lack of time is the number one obstacle to having family dinner that I hear from families in my clinical practice and the hundreds of families I’ve met through my work with The Family Dinner Project, a non-profit that offers online resources and community-based programs to help families improve the quality and quantity of their meals together.
To the family where parents are working multiple shifts or when kids have activities that run through dinner, I would talk about shifting to breakfast or to a nighttime snack. As long as the focus is on each other with time to tell stories about the day, and share a laugh, it doesn’t matter which meal is shared.
I might also share some time-saving tips I’ve learned from families:
- Make double batches of soups and stew, freezing half so that next week when you defrost, it’s like having a sous chef.
- Take shortcuts like buying pizza dough or precut vegetables—after all, the benefits of family dinner don’t come from making a three- course gourmet meal with heirloom tomatoes!
- Make a meal tonight that can be repurposed tomorrow night, like a roast chicken followed by a hearty chicken soup.
- Make a breakfast dish, like baked eggs, or a lunch dish like a soup and sandwich, which can be quicker than dinner recipes.
- Make meals with foods that you have on hand.
- Get help from other family members and think of the prep time as part of dinner—put on music and start the conversation.
- The average American dinner is 22 minutes. Prep time can be less than 20 minutes. If you consider all the benefits that come from dinner, this is a very efficient use of time.
What are a few of your own favorite dinner table games or conversation starters?
It can be fun for everyone to introduce some variety into the questions that parents ask at the table. A steady diet of “how was your day” questions can be tedious for both asker and responder, like being served chicken night after night. Just as it’s interesting to switch up your menu, here are a few of my favorites:
- Rose, thorn, and bud—Ask each family member to share something positive or funny (the rose), something negative or challenging (the thorn), and something they hope will happen tomorrow (the bud).
- Two Truths and a Lie, (or a Wish)—Ask each family member to share two things that actually happened during the day, and one that either didn’t happen or that they wish had happened. The other family members try to guess the one that isn’t true.
- Conversation jar—On slips of paper, write a whole slew of questions. Then stuff them in a jar that sits in the middle of the table. Each person can pull one out and answer it. Other family members may want to answer the same question or pull out another slip. Here are some examples to get you started: What character in a book or movie would you like as a friend? What are two things you feel grateful for today? If you are feeling sad, what can someone do to make you feel better? If you had three wishes what would they be? What is your favorite thing to do outside? If you could be one age for the rest of your life, what age would that be?
In my book, Home for Dinner, there are lots of suggestions for games to play with kids of all ages. Games can help lead to conversation, laughter, and everyone wanting to linger longer at dinner. Here are a couple of games:
- Would you Rather? Take turns asking each person “Would you rather…” and then finish the sentence with a ridiculous or thought-provoking choice like, “…. eat a bowl of worms or a bowl of crickets? Live in the future or in the past…speak every language or play every musical instrument? … Be able to fly or be invisible?” Once you get started on this one, kids will usually make up their own silly questions.
- Twenty Questions about a Family Memory: Have one family member think of a family memory, like the time our dog ate 49 chocolate chip cookies. Then, everyone else asks Yes/No questions to try to guess the memory. Did it happen during a holiday? Was everyone in the family there? Were we laughing, scared, sad? Did it involve food? Whoever guesses the right answer first gets to go next. This is a great game for finding out what experiences your kids are holding on to.
- Game for families with older kids: Each person writes the answer on a post-it to a question such as “What book transformed your life?” or “What character in a children’s book did you most identify with as a child?” or “What was your favorite toy?” Then the post-its are put in a hat and brought to the table. As each note is read aloud, other members try to guess which answer goes with which person. Interesting conversation ensues when individuals explain their answers.
How should your dinner plans evolve as your child grows up?
When it goes well, family dinner transforms along with your kids. In fact, a hallmark of a healthy family is its ability to keep redesigning family rituals to accommodate the changing demands of growing children. For babies, dinner is about the warm feelings of closeness and attachment that come from being fed by a parent; for a toddler, dinner is enhanced by “playing with food,” and trying out lots of new foods; for school-age kids, they are more competent to participate in meal preparation and are more aware of what other families are eating; during adolescence, food choices and conversation topics may reflect the growing need to assert a separate identity.
Since you published your book last year, has your thinking on any of these issues changed or evolved in any way?
Since my book came out about a year ago, I’ve been talking to many different groups of parents and healthcare professionals. While there are many similar issues that keep coming up—how exhausted parents are, how frustrating it is to make a meal that is rejected by a child or a spouse, how much conflict there is at the table—I’ve also been struck by how powerful cultural, gender, and class influences are on dinner. I recently spoke at an international family therapy conference, and several family therapists talked about working with families who consider it taboo to eat and talk at a meal.
I’ve also become aware of a widening economic disparity in the last 15 years, such that higher income families have been having more family dinners, while the number of young people in low-income families having regular family dinners has decreased. This disparity is probably due to low-income families having less control over their time, and less access to healthy food. It’s alarming given the degree of stress that low-income youth deal with on a day-to-day basis and the potential for increasing resilience and decreasing risk that family dinner offers.
And, I’ve come to think about the importance of teaching boys to cook—as we encourage our daughters to “lean in” at work, when boys and men “lean in” at home, family dinners provide an opportunity to move toward more gender equity. Indeed, today men are far more likely to help today than in previous generations. Between 1965 and 2008, men nearly doubled their time spent cooking, and 42 percent of American men now cook.
To learn more about The Family Dinner Project, visit thefamilydinnerproject.org!