How to turn family dinners into valuable time together

Regular meals build stronger families. Here’s how to turn family dinners into valuable together time

By Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger

Conventional wisdom and numerous studies have long touted the benefits of the family meal. A 2010 survey found that children whose families ate supper together were more physically active; more likely to choose healthy foods over junk; more likely to describe themselves as respectful, happy and confident; and even got better grades in school. A 2012 study found that regular family dinners coincided with a decreased risk of teen substance abuse.

But while homemade spaghetti sauce may be magic to young taste buds, the true magic of family dinners lies in the relationship between the people at the table. In a series of recent analyses, US sociologists Anne Meier and Kelly Musick found that parental presence in other areas like extracurricular activities and helping with homework contributes as much to raising well-adjusted children as eating together.

Mealtime, then, is just another great opportunity for families to connect and strengthen their bond. And just as the nutritional benefits of family dinners depend on the quality of the food, the social benefits rely on what happens between the bites.

Of course, your family calendar is probably full with work, meetings, sports practices and other activities. So we turned to the folks at the Family Dinner Project for tips on how to make family dinners easy, engaging and workable in your busy life. They’ve also compiled a handy list of hundreds of conversation starters for all ages to spark those discussions that your kids will remember for a lifetime.

Chances are you won’t have family dinners every night, and that’s okay. To make the ones you do have count, here’s how:

Book dinner into your day

Whether you use a day planner or smart phone calendar app, block off family dinnertime just as you would a work meeting. If you’ve made a date in writing, you’re more likely to keep it.

Do what works for you

If you haven’t been enjoying regular family dinners, don’t expect to start sitting down together every night of the week. Start with one or two regular meals a week on nights that aren’t so busy.

Start a recipe box

Build a go-to repertoire of easy-to-make recipes that are popular with everyone in the family. The Family Dinner Project has some easy recipe ideas that help you use what you have in your pantry to make delicious family meals.

Make it quick and easy

Our friends in the Canadian Living Test Kitchen know a thing or two about getting dinner on the table pronto! Here a collection of easy recipes the whole family will love.

Cook in bulk

On those nights when you have more time, make a huge batch of something. Put the extra in the freezer to pull out on those busy nights when there’s no time to cook.

Share the work

If one family member is always cooking and cleaning up, then dinner’s no fun for them. If everyone takes a turn cooking meals, prepping or cleaning up, then dinner is less of a chore and more fun for all.

Empower your kids

Let your children have days where they pick the meal and do the cooking. Have them join you in shopping for the ingredients for their meal. Ask your children to make a play list of music the family can listen to during dinner.

Shut off distractions

When you sit down to eat, turn off the electronics. This is family time—pay attention to the people in front of you, not your friends on social media.

Check your differences at the door

If your kids were misbehaving all day, or if you had an argument with them or your spouse, use dinner as a time to start fresh. Don’t bring the dispute to the table. It will sour the mood and spoil dinner.

Conversation is key

Dinner is the best opportunity for the family to connect. But you need more than endless variations on, “What did you do at school today?” Talk about issues, world events, ideas. At a loss? The Family Dinner Project has compiled over 500 conversation starters, appropriate for all ages.

Make it fun

Finish your dinner with a family activity—play a board game or cards, go for a walk, do a craft.