Here’s how to put the ‘family’ back in family dinners
by Diana Hembree
Having trouble getting the family together for dinner? You’re not alone.
Research shows that family dinners have declined by 30 percent over the past 20 years. Kids who have experienced childhood trauma are already at higher risk of obesity and unhealthy eating, so this decline is especially troubling.
“Dinner is a time to relax, recharge, laugh, tell stories and catch up on the day’s ups and downs, while developing a sense of who you are as a family,” Anne Fishel, PhD, a family therapist and professor at Harvard Medical School, has explained. “I don’t think people realize how big a punch that hour around the table packs.”
Fishel is a founding member of The Family Dinner Project, a Boston-based nonprofit that offers free online resources to help families revive the magic of the family meal. It’s there to support you whether you’d rather have family dinners, barbeques, breakfasts or just a weekly potluck.
“The benefits don’t come from a well-cooked lasagna; they come from creating a warm atmosphere at the table,” said Fishel. “Even one dinner a week can be hugely positive if the atmosphere is warm and engaging.”
And everyone doesn’t have to be there to make it work. “You could have one parent at the table, or perhaps an aunt or Grandpa,” she added. “You might take a snack break in the evening where parents and kids could come together and talk over hot chocolate. It should just be something that’s predictable and enjoyable.”
The power of ritual
For kids with trauma from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as abuse, divorce or neglect, such anchoring rituals are especially important. “Family dinners provide a ritual that is so tremendously important and comforting,” Fishel told Stress Health. “It’s something children can count on. The food may be different each night – what we talk about each night may be different – but the ritual is really healing, especially for children with ACEs.”
Fishel adds that “parents who have experienced ACEs sometimes find being able to provide their kids with something that is stable and nurturing – and perhaps different from their own childhood dinners – is a very concrete way to say, my family is different from the one I grew up in. I don’t yell at my children, I listen to them, we tell stories about our day, they know I love and care about them. They can count on me and I can count on myself to show up each day to do this.”
Family dinners not only foster a sense of belonging and security, but kids who eat five or more meals a week with their families are happier and less stressed and do better at school, according to recent studies. (Another plus: They eat more fruits and veggies, too).
And the benefits don’t stop there. “Twenty-five years of research have shown family dinners are good for the bodies, brain, spirit and health of family members,” says Fishel. “Children who eat family dinners are healthier, have more self-esteem, and are less likely to be anxious or depressed. They also have a lower risk of eating disorders, smoking, substance abuse and obesity.”
Hungry for connection
The Family Dinner Project has struck a deep chord in families across the United States and in countries such as Australia, China and Greece. “Fewer than half of American families eat dinner together daily, and people are hungry for face-to-face connection,” said Fishel.
Among The Family Dinner Project’s tips for reviving family dinners:
Turn off the screens. This means cell phones, email, TV and other devices.
Keep it simple. Remember those big batches of soup and casseroles our parents used to make? The nonprofit advises throwing some together on the weekend and freezing them to make family dinners easier.
Encourage everybody to pitch in. Even little ones can tear lettuce and set out napkins.
Be flexible. Your kid has a basketball game? Bring food and eat outside.
Make it count. Family dinners are one of the best times for togetherness. Tell stories, ask open-ended questions and talk about your own childhood. Play games like two truths and a lie. Most of all, relax and have fun – save potentially heated discussions for another time.
“Family dinners show us that people who love each other can still disagree with each other and squabble and even stalk off for a while,” says Bob Sege, MD, a pediatrician and professor of medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine who studies ACEs and resilience.
“I always tell my patients that family dinners are where we check in about all the little mundane things in life – you know, ‘Johnny pulled my hair’ and so on – so when real stuff happens you know how to communicate,” Sege says. “No matter what it is, you can handle it because you’ve been checking in with each other every day.”
The free resources available at The Family Dinner Project include newsletters, dinner conversation starters and games, family stories, a four-week online program for better family dinners and information on starting a parenting group and even a regular community dinner. The Project is also working on a new website that will let families set goals and track them online.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2014). Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Lifelong Consequences of Trauma. Retrieved form https://www.aap.org/en-us/Documents/ttb_aces_consequences.pdf
Bolger, JM, et al. (2015, February). The Protective Role of Family Meals for Youth Obesity: 10-year Longitudinal Associations. The Journal of Pediatrics 166 (2).
Center on Addiction. (2011, September 22). Family Dinners Report Finds Teens Who Have Infrequent Family Dinners Likelier to Smoke, Drink, Use Marijuana. Center on Addiction. Retrieved from https://www.centeronaddiction.org/newsroom/press-releases/2011-family-dinners-report-finds-teens-who-have-infrequent-family-dinners
Fishel, A, PhD. (2015). Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation. New York, New York: American Management Association.
Diana Hembree is a science writer for the Center for Youth Wellness. She is an award-winning journalist who has worked at Time Inc., the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Energy Bioscience Institute and has written or edited for Forbes, HealthDay, the Washington Post, PBS Frontline, Vibe and many other places. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.