Regular sit-down family dinners can make all the difference in a child’s life. Studies like this one tout the emotional and physical benefits for children who eat dinner with their parents. It’s been found that kids who eat regular family meals tend to do better academically, have better language skills, have closer relationships with their parents, eat healthier food, have fewer weight problems, smoke less, and use fewer drugs and alcohol.
What’s more, dinnertime is a wonderful way for families to spend time together, check in with each other, and hear about everyone’s day.
Sounds fantastic … until reality kicks in. Preparing a sit-down meal after a full day of work — along with dealing with homework and other after-school activities that eat into the evening hours — might seem impossible. But according to Suzie Kane, founder of familymealplanning.net and the author of Suzie’s Table: A Smorgasbord of Ideas for Less Stress and More Fun at Dinner Time, there are easy ways to find time to sit down to dinner as a family. Here are some of Kane’s top tips for making family meals happen:
Start out small
“Start with a modest goal of just one or two nights a week,” says Kane, who notes how hard it can be for busy parents and kids to find even 20 minutes to simply sit down together. So for starters settle on a couple of “family nights” — like Fridays or Sundays — when kids have fewer activities and less homework. Or try a weekend breakfast or lunches if schedules allow. It doesn’t have to always be dinner. However, even one night a week makes a difference when it comes to family bonding. And dinner provides a more specific time where the kids know they will have your attention.
Don’t stress about the food
Yes, a plateful of green veggies and fresh fruit would be nice. But if preparing an elaborate homemade meal is getting in the way of having a sit-down dinner, remember: It’s less about the food and more about the togetherness. “You don’t even have to make the food,” says Kane. “Even if it’s a pizza or takeout Chinese, the fact that you’re sitting there together may be the only time busy parents have to connect with their kids.” (Looking for easy, quick, and healthy dinner ideas? Check out the recipes on eatingwell.com.) There are also dinner shortcuts kids love, like having breakfast or lunch for dinner. What could be easier than scrambled eggs or sandwiches?
Have kids help plan the meal
By the time they are 5, your children can help you plan — and even make — many meals. If you’re the type who likes to plan ahead, tell the kids that on Sunday they can choose what the family will eat (no cake for the main course allowed … unless it’s their birthday) a few nights a week. Writing out a weekly meal schedule ahead of time also removes nightly what’s-for-dinner stress.
If you’re really organized, write the names of different dishes on index cards, so the kids can choose from the possibilities, be it tacos, spaghetti, soup, or hamburgers. When it’s time to cook, invite them into the kitchen with you and give them age-appropriate tasks, from stringing beans to stirring in ingredients. Not only will working together give you more time to spend with your children (rather than you always working for them), but they’ll also be more likely to eat what they helped make.
Get ’em talking
Much of the benefit of eating together is about talking together. But if all you’re hearing when you ask questions about your kids’ day is, “I dunno,” “Fine,” and “Nothing,” you can use creative and fun ways to get everyone talking. Kane suggests dinner table games, like one called “2-Up+1-Down.” Each person at the table shares two good things and one disappointing thing from their day. “Celebrating our successes of the day feels good,” says Kane. “And talking about the ‘downs’ gives family members a chance to support each other.”
A variation on this game: Give two compliments to another person at the table and then say one thing about something you did that you’re proud of. “This game is great for kids who need a boost in their self-esteem,” says Kane. And what kid doesn’t need mom-and-pop props now and then?
Another table-talk booster is to have everyone describe what super-power they’d most like to have. Before you know it, the family will be talking about how to achieve world peace — or the pros and cons of electric blue tights. If these games don’t loosen lips, take some tips from GreatSchools staff.
Make setting up and cleaning up a family affair
If dinnertime set-up and clean-up is too much for you to take on alone, teach your kids the value of teamwork by having them pitch in. Kids as young as 3 can help out.
Assign each person different tasks, from setting the table to clearing the table to washing dishes. (Use a chore chart so there’s no squabbling over who does what every night.)
Kane does this with her own kids. “I was tired of the cleanup alone,” says Kane, who now has her entire family helping out. “It used to take me 30 minutes to clean up alone. Now within 10 minutes, it’s done.” Bonus: The family gets to keep the dinner conversation going during cleanup.