Family Dinner

The family dinner is the best time to create a happy marriage. While most families are starved for time together, the family dinner is a great opportunity to have that time together. Research over the years continually finds that families that eat together benefit in their relationships, health, happiness, and well-being. Children who participate in family dinners 5 or more times a week are healthier, better academically and socially, and have less tendency to be involved in smoking, drugs, deviant behavior, and sexual promiscuity. With the family unit at the center of a civilized society, the family dinner is a tradition that we need now more than ever to fortify our marriages, families, relationships, communities, and even our nation.

Family Dinner

Making time for family dinner is a result of the decisions we make. President Obama takes a break at 6:30pm to make time for dinner with Michelle and his children. He has a rule not to miss more than 2 such dinners in any week. In his farewll address to the nation, President Ronald Reagan said this:

“All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” – Ronald Reagan

Research studies continually show that the family dinner has profound impact on our health and well-being. The most prominent research on family dinners and adolescents is by CASAColumbia, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. They find that adolescents that eat dinner with the family 5 or more times a week can see these benefits:

  • four times less likely to use tobacco
  • more than twice less likely to use alcohol and marijuana
  • more likely to perform well academically

Questions have risen about such findings. Can food really do all that? Research by Musick and Meier entitled Assessing Causality and Persistence in Associations Between Family Dinners and Adolescent Well-Being came to the conclusion that the results were “not due to the family meals per se, but rather reflected the type of people who engage in family meals.” They also find:

  • The routine, or consistency, of having family meals leads to feelings of closeness and comfort
  • Family meal time is a common time when children communicate with parents

Simply by having family meals together, you are creating an environment that naturally creates the family atmosphere of closeness and comfort where family members feel relaxed. That environment, more than the food itself, leads to happiness and family bonding.

The food does play an important role, however. Today as obesity is having such detrimental effects on our health, the food we eat becomes vitally important. When we eat out we have no control as to the quality of the food served. When we eat in, we can control what we eat by buying healthier and less processed foods. Cody Delistraty writing in The Atlantic in July, 2014, says:

“Sadly, Americans rarely eat together anymore. In fact, the average American eats one in every five meals in her car, one in four Americans eats at least one fast food meal every single day, and the majority of American families report eating a single meal together less than five days a week. It’s a pity that so many Americans are missing out on what could be meaningful time with their loved ones, but it’s even more than that. Not eating together also has quantifiably negative effects both physically and psychologically.”

A poll with readers found that 50% of the readers indicating they had good or ideal family dinners and frequency. That left the remaining 50% indicating below “good” amounts of family meals together.

The combination of a relaxed and comfortable environment and quality food lead to a dynamic duo that offers superior health, marriage and family results.

Making Time for Family Dinners

The #1 issue most claim as the reason for not having family dinner together is a lack of time. Scott Hoefker in his article called Dinner Time: The Perfect Time to Rebuild Family Togetherness, says this:

“More than one in five parents with children and teens say they are simply “too busy” to have family dinners together. Given the importance of frequent family dinners and the impact parental engagement has in preventing teen substance abuse, families should work to overcome the barriers to frequent family dining!” – Scott Hoefker

People are busy. Children have activities. We run around all day and when we get home, we want to relax. We need to wind down. The last thing anyone wants to do when they are tired and stressed out is think about slaving in a hot kitchen making dinner. It’s easy to run to McDonald’s or pick up something at the drive-through.

Does that sound about right?

I get it. It can be tough. I just have one question for you.

What is important in your life?

Think about it. If near the top of your list are your children, family, spouse, or happiness, I challenge you to find a better way to improve all of that than with a simple family dinner.

“People say they don’t have time to cook, yet in the last few years we have found an extra two hours a day for the internet.” – Michael Pollan, Author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma

It comes down to the decisions we make.

We all have the same 24 hours a day. Yet, some are able to have family dinner together 5 or more times per week, while others decide to put their time doing other things. Everything we do is the result of a decision we made. Our house, job, spouse, kids, church – they are all a result of the decisions we made. Even the President of the United States is able to make time for family dinner. If we watch TV while we eat, we decided to do that. If we run around carting our children to one activity after another, thinking it’s the best thing to do for them, it’s a decision we made.

We have slowly allowed technology and social pressures to leave behind the very traditions that made us strong. I think back on my childhood and my fondest memories are of being in the kitchen when my mom was making a meal. I remember the Shake-n-Bake pork chops, pierogies, and meatloaf. I can still see it as clear as if it was just yesterday. I talk with my brothers and we sometimes share stories of those times sitting at the table and what we used to do to hide the vegetables we didn’t like.

Today we don’t make times like that as much as we used to. We want to watch the TV, play on our smartphones, play games, play sports, or surf the internet. We get caught up with the cultural “norm” of sending our kids off to one after school activity after another. We need to make the decision to be the type of people who prioritize family togetherness. We need to make the decision to eat family dinner together for our own health and well-being. We need to make the decision to eat family dinner together because we value our marriage.

Benefits of the Family Dinner

For Your Marriage

I’ve said it on this site before. The family dinner is the single best time to create a happy marriage. Whether it is just you and your partner, or if you have a household full of kids, the family dinner is a time when you can create a loving and passionate marriage.

The family dinner process allows for the time to have meaningful and marriage building conversations.

One of the features I offer on this site is the Dinner Talk Series. This is a series of conversation topics based on the best practices of top marriage experts. I suggest printing one out for each meal and discussing that topic at some point during the family dinner. Why just talk about work, sports, politics, or other things that can make you edgy? Talk about something that will bring you together. If there are children around, keep the topics age appropriate. The Dinner Talk – Couples Edition contains 200 conversation topics based on the best practices of top marriage experts. Get it today. It’s just $17.

Use the family dinner as a time to create the type of marriage you dream about.

For Your Family

Family dinners provide a time for everyone to talk and share stories.

  • Build unity and family identity
  • Create or carry on family traditions
  • Convey family values and attitudes
  • Convey ethnic traditions and tastes

Becky Hand, Licensed and Registered Dietitian writing for SparkPeople in an article called The 8 Benefits of Eating Together, says that eating out costs 2 – 4 times as much as eating in and we already spend 46% of the family budget on food outside the home. There’s nothing wrong with saving money and the more you eat in, the more you’ll save.

For Your Children

Children benefit most from consistent family dinners.

They have a strong need for a sense of certainty. This is why divorce is so damaging to kids, it tears apart the certainty they understood. Bruce Feiler, author of The Secrets of Happy Families, suggests the 10-50-1 rule. He suggests aiming for 10 minutes of quality talk. I would suggest a much higher amount (38 minutes) but start at 10 and work your way up. It doesn’t have to be dry and serious, but it does need to be of a quality that helps build the relationship. The 50 is for getting the children to talk for 50% of the meal time. Let them share about their day, dreams, friends, etc. Lastly, the 1 is to teach the children 1 new word every day. This will build their vocabulary and teach them valuable lessons. Perhaps bring a paper or article to the table and have them point out a word. Discuss it and open up their world. While children will balk and complain about sitting at the dinner table, it will become their most valued memories of growing up.

Psychologist Marshall Duke suggests a great way to build resilience in children, and it is called the oscillating narrative. Children love to hear stories, so tell them good stories that will help them. The oscillating narrative is a story that depicts the ups and downs someone had and how every time something bad happened they got back up on their feet and thrived. There are plenty of stories like that in sports, history, and probably in your very own family. Is there a great, great, grandfather that stuck together with his family, overcame all kinds of adversity, and succeeded? That’s the story kids love and need to hear. It gives them strength for when they experience difficult times.

Does the oscillating narrative sound familiar? It’s the basis of great movies and novels. It’s a formula used in just about every book and movie. Think about a movie you recently saw. Did the hero have any adversity? Did the hero overcome the problems? What was needed for the hero to win? Often, there is a character trait, originally lacking that the hero needed to learn, in order for the hero to overcome the problems. There’s another great story you can talk with your children about. What character traits were needed for the hero to win in the latest movie you saw with your children?

For Your Health

So many of us need to drop some weight and eat healthier. I know I do. The family dinner is a great time to make the shift from processed or fast foods to more natural foods. “Let food by thy medicine and medicine be thy food” is a great quote from the Greek physician Hippocrates. When we cook our own food we can control what we eat. We can cut back on processed foods, salt, sugar, and fats, and and introduce more vegetables, lean meats, and good carbs. Portion control is a huge benefit of eating at home. Restaurant portion sizes have blown way out of control. The bottom line is when we eat in, we can control what and how much goes into our bodies.

Family Dinner Needs Everyone Involved

It’s not 1950 anymore and we shouldn’t expect June Cleaver or Carol Brady to make dinner every day. We have to make a change in family role models. Guys, we have an important role in the family dinner. Many decades ago the wife stayed at home, cleaned the house, took care of the children, and cooked the meals. Today, the wife may have a full or part time job, and is still expected to clean the house, take care of the children, and cook the meals. That MUST change. There is an equality now that society has never had before and that equality must be represented in the home. Children and husbands must get more involved in running the household and that includes the important family dinner.

The 5 Steps to a Successful Family Dinner

A good meal just doesn’t appear. There are 5 steps and in each step all family members have opportunities to get involved. There are age appropriate places where children can get involved. The husband and the wife can participate in all steps.

  1. Step 1 – Planning. What are you going to eat each night? If you don’t plan it you are more likely to not have something on hand and want to eat out or bring fast food in. There are meal planning services that makes this a cinch. You can have fun with this also (see below). Whatever you do, make a list of what you want, make the ingredient list and do your food shopping.
  2. Step 2 – Prepare. The prep work is cleaning, cutting or peeling the vegetables, getting the ingredients out (mise en plas), and preparing what needs to be done prior to cooking. This might be just a few minutes, but it’s an important step in making a successful meal.
  3. Step 3 – Cooking. What cooking method are you going to use? Are the pots and pans ready? Make bigger quantities and have left-overs for another day or for lunches.
  4. Step 4 – Eating. This is the fun part. This is where most of the conversations take place and it’s an opportunity to teach children good food etiquette and manners. Introduce new foods to kids so they can expand their universe beyond pizza and mac and cheese.
  5. Step 5 – Clean-up. Here is a great opportunity for children to take on responsibilities of cleaning up the table, and putting things away. Husband and wife should get involved and demonstrate cooperation. There’s no reason this can’t be a little fun.

We’re not talking about making every meal like a Thanksgiving feast.

That is simply not practical. Every meal does not have to be made from scratch. It’s perfectly fine to eat out once in a while or bring something home from your favorite restaurant. This is not meant to be a chore. Enjoy the process and make it a great experience for the entire family.

Make it Fun

We often tell ourselves that cooking is a chore and that it’s so much easier to just eat out or pop a frozen dish in the microwave. Decide to have family dinner together AND make the best out of the entire process. Have fun with it. What are you going to eat? How about setting up a schedule like this:

  • Meatless Monday
  • Taco Tuesday
  • Casserole Wednesday (great for lunch left-overs)
  • Pasta Thursday
  • Fishy Friday
  • Steamy Saturday
  • Game-day Sunday

Play games while the meal is cooking. Make it a family adventure. If you have kids, pitch a tent and eat dinner in the tent. Guys, bring home flowers and put them on the dinner table. Use a nice tablecloth for every meal. Make the dinner table a respected and honored location in the house.

Rules for a Successful Family Dinner

The family dinner will simply not work if the TV is on or folks are distracted doing things that restrict or diminish the chance to have the much needed conversations. So, here are some rules I suggest:

  • No TV
  • No phones of any kind
  • No tablets, game consoles, or any other similar electronics
  • No arguments or fighting
  • Talk
  • Say grace and be thankful – what are you thankful for today?
  • Everybody comes to the table
  • Everyone tries everything
  • Don’t rush the family dinner – pace it and take time eating every bite

There are many other potential rules, especially if children are involved. The big thing here is to create the environment where everyone can relax, enjoy the meal, and have the type of conversations that build relationships. Anything that interferes with that, make a rule for it.

It’s Time to Decide What’s Important

It’s your decision. I hope I’ve conveyed how important it is to have 5 or more family dinners together. Here’s a little twist. It doesn’t have to be dinner! It can be breakfasts or even lunches. I know there are situations out there where one spouse works the night shift or there are things already in place that makes having family dinner together impossible or very difficult.

It’s OK.

You made the decisions that brought you to where you are right now. You can make more decisions that can improve your situation. So, today, do what you can, but I recommend that you make future decisions that will allow you to have family dinner at least 5 times each and every week. It is so important. I want the best for you and I want you to have a happy marriage. To me, the family dinner is essential to make that happen.

Start today. Plan your dinner. Next, plan what to talk about. Use the time together to have fun and a purpose driven conversation that can reinforce the love and affection that supports your marriage. If you need help I have a resource for you – Dinner Talk – Couples Edition. This downloadable e-book contains 200 conversations based on the best practices of leading marriage experts. Conversation tips helps keep the conversations argument free and fun. Get it today -it’s just $17.


About the author

Mark Jala is a certified marriage coach, researcher, and consumer advocate. Certified in Strategic Interventions, Mark bases all of his services and advice on verifiable research. With nearly 40 years of problem solving experience, Mark has developed a holistic approach to marriage coaching which provides a context and execution plan not seen in ordinary marriage services.

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