In “A Date with Your Family,” a 10-minute instructional film made in 1950, Mother knits while dinner cooks. She and Daughter change from their daytime wear to something more formal. Brother and Junior comb their hair and wash their hands in preparation. Father returns from the office and hangs his hat on a rack.
“The dinner date has begun and they’re all happy about it,” the narrator says. “Napkins on the lap, the family awaits service. They converse pleasantly while Dad serves — I said ‘pleasantly,’ for that is the keynote at dinnertime. It is not only good manners but good sense. Pleasant, unemotional conversation helps good digestion.”
As he continues to explain dinnertime dos and don’ts, the narrator advises complimenting Mother on the food and avoiding speaking unkindly about your siblings.
“The dinner table is no place for discontent,” the narrator says. “This does not mean you should be stiff or formal – with your own family you can relax. Be yourself. Just be sure it’s your best self.”
This version of family dinner, if it ever really existed outside of TV shows, is long gone. But connecting over a shared meal is still a concept many families aspire to today. But how to make that happen? It’s a mix of loosening things up and not scrapping the whole idea.
Family Dinners: What Changed?
Just about everything has changed – starting with the family itself.
“The notion of having a mom at home cooking? That ship has sailed,” says Anne Fishel, PhD, executive director and co-founder of The Family Dinner Project.
“Around 50% of American families are either single-parent families or a blended family,” Fishel says. She also notes that if two parents are present, both might be moms or dads. And sometimes there’s a grandparent in the mix, too. Some people have expanded their definition of family to include their chosen family – the people in their inner circle who make them feel at home, even if they’re not relatives.
Dinner itself has also changed. For many people, it rarely means cooking from scratch. They may prefer other options, like subscription meal kits, frozen food, delivery, take-out fare, and restaurant dining.
“Family dinner doesn’t have to be dinner and it doesn’t have to be family,” Fishel says.
“I think it’s any two people,” she says. “It may be beyond the pale to get everybody together night after night. Some families I know have a rule that no one eats alone. In some families, kids have veggies with hummus at 5 p.m. because they’re really hungry and eat more of a meal with a parent later on.”
Family Dinners: The COVID-19 Effect
One of the few upsides of the early part of the pandemic, when many people stayed home as much as possible, was that hectic family commitments that involved going out were literally off the table. Eating dinner at home was more likely, whether you cooked or baked more than usual (sourdough bread, anyone?) or ordered in.
A little over a year into the pandemic, Fishel teamed up with Making Caring Common, a Harvard Graduate School of Education project, to survey more than 500 parents about family dinners.
“Over 60% said they were having family dinner more often,” Fishel says. And most of those parents – 80% – said they wanted to keep that up. “Parents even reported an improvement in the quality of their family dinners,” Fishel says. “They talked more about their days, laughed more, connected more, and talked about the news.”
As we’re settling into the “new normal,” what will it take to keep family dinners in the mix?
Family Dinners: It Becomes Tradition
If family dinner is important to you, it’s likely because they were part of your childhood.
If you grew up in the strict family dinner era, you might not have liked being told to eat everything on your plate or getting a nightly table manners lesson. But even so, you’re more likely to prioritize family dinners as an adult.
“Family meal traditions may encourage more frequent family meals across generations,” says Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, head of the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “Parents who ate six to seven family meals a week while growing up reported significantly more frequent family meals with their current family.”
Some even make a career of it.
“Family dinner is at the core of what we do,” says Caroline Galzin, who, with her husband, Tony, owns Nicky’s Coal Fired restaurant in Nashville, where Mondays are family night. “Everything’s inspired by Tony’s big Italian family and the atmosphere around mealtimes when he grew up,” Galzin says. “Everyone brought something different and lots of people gathered to share a meal.”
Family Dinner: The Benefits
Children who eat regular family dinners experience less depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, have bigger vocabularies, get better grades, have higher self-esteem, and eat more fruits and vegetables, says dietitian Maryann Jacobsen, author of The Family Dinner Solution.
“But we don’t need studies to know that gathering as a family in a positive atmosphere is good for us,” Jacobsen says. “It brings us together, promotes closeness, and shows kids that food matters.”
It also sets up eating patterns that can last a long time.
“Even when kids don’t eat everything we serve, we know from research that the food kids are exposed to most during childhood are the same foods they prefer in adulthood,” Jacobsen says.
The table can be a tricky place to navigate family dynamics. That is, if you can get there at all.
“When I talk to families across the country, being busy is the No. 1 obstacle of having a family meal together,” Fishel says. “Parents work different shifts or kids have extracurricular activities around the dinner hour.”
Other common issues include picky eating, conflict at the table, and tight budgets.
The key is to be flexible – and not give up, Jacobsen says. Make it something that works for your family – however you define it. Prize connection, not perfect attendance or a showstopping menu.
“I’m not going to lie: It takes commitment to plan and have family meals every week,” Jacobsen says. “But now that my kids are older, I can see that it’s worth it.”