Eating dinner together is one of the most important things you can do as a family. In fact, as a registered dietitian I sometimes feel like I spend more time preaching about the act of eating together than I do talking about the actual foods you put on the table.
Of course what you eat is important, too — but what many people don’t realize is that what you eat and how much you eat is intrinsically linked to where you eat, how you eat and who you eat it with.
If kids don’t get used to regular mealtimes, or if snacks and meals are grabbed on the go from whatever convenience foods are available, they are more likely to suffer from dietary problems like overeating, obesity and/or a lack of key nutrients in their diet. They may develop anxieties around food security, leading to eating too much when they get the chance, or they may develop the unhealthy habit of skipping meals too. (See my article on breakfasts for more on why skipping meals can be deeply counterproductive — even if you are trying to lose weight.)
But beyond the basics of healthy nutrition, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that family meals are an opportunity to nurture enjoyment of food, of each other, and a deeper sense of connection between different members of your family.
Now don’t get me wrong, in our family we love to eat takeout — and we sometimes grab food on the go when we have to. My husband and I also try to eat alone as a couple — without children — at least one night a week.
The point here is not about hard and fast rules. It’s about setting up your life so that eating together becomes normal, not the exception. Here are some tips to help make that happen.
Make a plan
If you don’t do this already, making a weekly meal plan can be a great way to ensure a healthy diet and help facilitate family mealtimes. It means you can plan ahead, even cooking the night before, and it reduces the temptation to improvise a PB&J sandwich for the kids and letting the adults fend for themselves later. As a bonus, it can also save you considerable amounts of money — especially if you coordinate your meals to make the best use of the ingredients you have available.
Go easy on yourself
Remember, this is not about super strict regimentation. If the idea of getting a full meal in front of your family at the end of the day has you daunted, then plan for something easy like a salad, or put a variety of ingredients on the table and have them make their own tacos, or sandwiches. Heck, even eating a frozen meal or takeout together, at the dinner table, is a huge step forward. You can always work your way up to that three-course gourmet meal later.
It’s important to communicate to children that family meals are important, and that they are expected to attend, but you should be careful not to make them a chore. Make sure you include plenty of fun, kid-friendly options, and be sure to engage kids in conversations or fun games as you eat. This should be a highlight of their day, not something to get over with as quickly as possible so they can get back to watching Dora.
Share the responsibility
Family dinners shouldn’t be a chore for Mom or Dad either. Find ways to share the responsibility. Even if one parent works during the week and the other is home, look for ways to switch roles on the weekend or on special nights of the week. As the kids get older, you might ask them to pitch in too — our daughter loves making pizza with Dad. The cleanup is usually a little more involved, and the food takes longer to arrive, but it’s all part of the fun. We’re hoping it’s the start of a lifelong, healthy and fulfilling connection with her food. (We’re also looking forward to the day when she invites us over for pizza.)
Like I mentioned above, my husband and I try to have “date night” once a week. Sometimes that means a steak dinner once the kids have gone to bed, sometimes it means going out to a restaurant. But we consider it an important part of connecting with each other, without kids, which is crucial to ensuring that the whole family stays happy. It also allows us to have a few meals that aren’t 100 percent kid-friendly and fun. (Nope, I really don’t want to eat a broccoli forest or a smiley face made out of vegetables.) From time to time we also eat out as a family, or we adults do our own thing.
Like most things in the world of healthy eating, rigid regimens and strict rules are not going to help in the long run. Instead, we need to build a healthy, flexible and enjoyable relationship with our food.