Family Dinner

Making that old-fashioned idea work today.

Posted Dec 10, 2019

National Cancer Institute, Public Domain
Source: National Cancer Institute, Public Domain

“Dinner’s on the table!”

“Come on mom, just five more minutes!”

“So, what did you do in school today?”

“Nothing.”

 “Eat your vegetables”

“I HATE vegetables.”

While troubling, such exchanges are more from an earlier era in which family dinner was virtually inviolate. Today, that glue of familial connection and problem-solving is often but a memory from ancient Ozzie and Harriet TV shows. Families often graze individually, with one parent still at work, if only in the home-office. The exhortation to eat veggies is moot because the parent ordered in pizza, both because it’s easy and the kids prefer it to broiled chicken, broccoli, and quinoa. The kids pop open the pizza box (assuming they hadn’t earlier raided the fridge and are no longer hungry), grab their favorite slices, and abscond to their room so they can eat while chatting or texting on the phone, watching TV, playing video games, or just maybe doing their homework.

While there’s humor in all that, at the risk of being atavistic, I think individuals and families would be wise to try to make family dinner the norm. Here are some thoughts on how to make family dinner work.

Getting started

To break the status quo, you might convene a family meeting explaining family dinner’s benefits, for example,

We all have such busy lives that it’s nice to have at least a half hour most nights to check in with each other. Some nights, we may have nothing more important to talk about than the food, other nights something more serious . . . or more fun. But knowing that we’ll be getting together nightly will be a comforting and probably helpful ritual. Of course, there will be nights that won’t be possible but let’s aim to make that the norm. Any questions, comments, criticisms?

To avoid having to cook every night, there are plenty of good options. Of course, as always, you could, on the weekend, make a few things and put them in the freezer. Or use a food delivery service like DoorDash or GrubHub, trying to strike that balance between healthy and delicious, although the world won’t end (and your kids will probably love it) if once a week you order in their faves, healthy or not: pizza, Chinese, whatever.

Problems

Begging off. Sooner than later, someone will try to beg off family dinner. A spouse might say, “I’ve got to get this work done.” Possible response: “If it’s important enough that you can’t wait a half hour, okay. But what do you think?” A child might protest, “There’s this awesome show on!” Possible response: “I know you’d rather watch it now than record it and have to wait until after dinner but family dinner’s important enough that I’m going to ask you to wait the half-hour. Can you live with that?”

Arguments. Kids will snipe, adults will snipe. There are no magic answers, just the same insufficient ones that apply to all communication. Try to listen without defensiveness. If you can muster the restraint, perhaps first paraphrasing their concern, try to respond in a Solomonic way, proposing what seems a wise solution. For example, your child says that he hates your cooking. An understandable visceral reaction is, “Damn it. I’ve been at work all day. You’re lucky you’re not eating sloppy joes.” But can you summon the restraint to say something like, “I know I’m not the world’s greatest cook, especially when I’m tired after a long day of work. Is there anything I make that you’d like me to make tomorrow?”

If you’re not the target of the argument, you might don your insightful shrink hat, for example, “I’m wondering if the real reason you’re mad at your sister is that she’s getting a lot of praise for a good report card. What do you think? And if so, should you accept that she’s a better student than you or do you want to do anything different to raise your grades?”

But what if your child throws a tantrum, for example, “Why do I have to use a sippy cup!” followed by stomping, falling to the floor, crying, and when that doesn’t yield results, screaming? Standard advice doesn’t get suspended at mealtime. Best practice is something like, “That’s not going to help. It will only make you stay angry.” Then try to ignore the behavior until it stops. If the noise is too disruptive, you might say something like, “You’re hurting the family dinner. You have one more chance to stop. Otherwise, you’ll have to go to your room and wait for dinner until all of us are done.”

Or an older child’s version of a tantrum: “Why can’t I use my phone? Dinner is boring. We’re not talking about anything. ‘No devices’ is a stupid rule!” A possible response: “If you’re on your phone, you’re preoccupied, so there’s no chance we’ll have a good discussion. A half-hour away from your phone is worth it.” Your child will likely argue back or roll their eyes. If so, best might be to saying nothing more; just give a schoolmarm look with a hint of a knowing smile.

Requests to disband

Family dinners can go on for weeks without apparent benefit and certainly without sufficient benefit to compensate for having to adjust schedules for family dinner only for it to often be boring or tension-filled. So someone might say, "We should stop these stupid family dinners!" Of course, in some cases, the situation might feel too unlikely to improve but, more often, it’s worth sticking it out. A sample response: “I understand. Family dinner hasn’t been going well but in the long run, I think we’d regret disbanding it. When I think back on my childhood, family dinner was one of the best things. Does anyone have a suggestion for what we might do to make them better?”

A Psychology Today editor's take

A few years ago, I interviewed Psychology Today's Editor-at-Large Hara Marano. Here's what she said about family dinner.

After going our separate ways during the day--my husband and I to our jobs, the kids to school---we had dinner together every night. I needed that centripetal force in my life. We talked. We laughed.

It turns out that family dinner is a great glue; everyone gets to feel like they belong. Miss Manners said it best: "Family dinner is the boot camp of civilization.”

Kids come to count on that routine and, no matter how reluctantly they may come to the table as teens, deep down they want to be there and don't want the adults to give up on them; It gives them a needed sense of coherence at a wacky time in their lives.

Also, my kids always felt free to bring their friends home for dinner, and I discovered how rare our routine was. I still hear from some of those kids and, to this day, they remember those dinners as a bright spot in their lives.

The takeaway

Blog-length advice about something as complex as family interaction is reductionist. But I’m hoping there’s enough of value here to give you the courage to give the old-fashioned family dinner a new chance.

I read this aloud on YouTube.