You may have heard it on the news or morning talk shows: Have dinner
together as a family often. There’s even a national initiative, Family Day,
that reminds parents “what your kids really want at the dinner table is
Studies have found that kids who have frequent family dinners are less
likely to use alcohol, tobacco, or drugs.
By Helen Kirwan-Taylor
Many years ago I had a falling-out with a girlfriend that proved so painful, I can hardly talk about it today. My friend (let's call her Mary) was a colorful television personality and had the world at her feet. She was engaged to a handsome European, and her face was plastered across the newspapers. I was working for 60 Minutes at the time, and we often met for lunch. Then one day her show was canceled and she asked me - casually, as though it didn't really matter...
But it’s not just about the food, say experts: it’s about the connection.
Whether you’re eating dinner, going for a nature walk, or holding a family
karaoke night, spending time together builds healthy families and healthy
“If you grew up in a healthy family that did these things, it makes
intuitive sense to you: this is what glues families together,” says Meg Cox,
author of The Book of New Family Traditions: How to Create Great Rituals for
Holidays & Everyday. “It’s about a sense of connection, of being loved,
a sense of identity and security that runs very deep.”
What family activities can you do with your kids to build those essential
connections? The sky’s the limit! To get started with some fun family
activities, try these tips from Cox and Lawrence Cohen, PhD, clinical
psychologist and author of Playful Parenting.
Family Fun With Food
Play “conversation in a jar" (or basket, or bin). Keep a
container on the dinner table with blank slips of paper, and whenever you think
of a cool question, write it down and toss it in. Some examples from Cox:
“What’s something you can do better than your parents?” “If there were a
holiday named after you, how would people celebrate it?” “Make up a nickname
for everyone at the table -- nothing mean!” Once a week, use some of the
questions in the basket to spark conversations at dinner.
Shake it up. Every so often, have a wacky family dinner night.
“Sometimes we’ll eat with the big serving utensils, use serving platters
instead of plates, and drink out of big pitchers instead of cups,” says Cohen.
Or you can put food coloring in everything and make goofy food. Or just serve
dinner as a picnic, on a blanket in the living room or playroom.
Have a “reading dinner.” Choose a book and read aloud while you eat.
If your kids are old enough, they can take a turn. “I think the reason my kids
ate all their vegetables when they were younger is that the rule was, you have
to keep eating if I’m going to read!” says Cox.
Enjoy special food outings. Have a regular, simple ritual, like going
for ice cream after dinner once a week, or walking to the farmer’s market on
Cook together as a family. Even the youngest child can help in the
kitchen by pouring or stirring. “Just remember, it’s about the process, not
getting to the outcome,” says Cohen. “It’ll probably take you longer to make
the cookies than if you made them yourself, and the kitchen will get a lot
messier. But if you tell them to stop and let you do it because they’re making
a mess, you’ve blown it. It’s about time together.”
Invite friends to a monthly “soup night.” This is about more than
just your family -- it’s about connecting with a community of friends. On soup
night -- maybe the first Saturday of every month? -- make a huge pot of chili
or stew and let it be known that friends are welcome to drop by with a bottle
of wine or a loaf of bread. “Having things like that, that sense of community,
lets kids grow up in a place where they feel safe,” says Cox. “They know there
are other adults who will look after them.”