Family Dinners: Tips for Better Communication

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on June 20, 2012
4 min read

Want kids with better grades, better moods, and better eating habits? Start having dinner together as a family.

"Eating together is a fundamental way of creating closeness in a family," says Brad Sachs, PhD, a family psychologist in Columbia, MD and author of The Good Enough Child and The Good Enough Teen. "It's nourishing and restorative, both physically and emotionally." Studies have found concrete benefits from family dinners, ranging from higher GPAs to better social adjustment.

But if eating together as a family is so good, why can it go so badly? What about the whining, the sullen silences, and the explosive arguments? Try these tips for creating good family dinner conversation -- and help your family communicate better.

It's smart to put some thought into what you discuss at dinner. Here are expert suggestions on how to get a conversation going -- and what topics to avoid.

Be specific. Stay away from broad, open-ended questions, says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, a psychologist in Princeton, N.J., and coauthor of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids: Nurturing Your Child's True Potential. "If you ask things like 'What did you do today?' or 'How was school?' you will get answers like 'Nothing,' or 'Fine,'" she says. She suggests specifics. Who did you sit with at lunch? Did you get to go outside at recess? How is your friend Sarah doing in math? What was the best or worst moment of the day?

Don't interrogate. If your kids aren't answering a question, don't keep pressing them on it.

Don't sermonize. "Don't use dinner conversation as a time to dish out sermons or lessons in morality," says Sachs. Don't twist everything your child says into a "teachable moment" or distill it into a lesson. Let your kids talk -- while you listen.

Hold your tongue. There will be times when you're just dying to bring up a touchy subject. Don't. It's not worth spoiling your dinner together. There are other opportunities to nag your kids about their homework or quiz them about their boyfriends.

Reminisce. Ever notice that close families tend to reminisce a lot? "Talking about shared experiences is a great way to create closeness," says Kennedy-Moore. Telling a beloved or funny family story can get your kids engaged. Kennedy-Moore says that reminiscing has a further benefit. Recalling challenges that your children faced -- and overcame -- reinforces a child's confidence in his or her ability to solve problems.

Talk about your own day. Get the ball rolling. Talk about something funny that happened to you today. Alternatively, Sachs suggests talking about something that troubled you. "Talk about daily problems and vulnerabilities and how you worked through them," says Sachs. "You're showing your kids how to cope."

Don't have all the answers. You don't have to have a solution for every problem your child brings up. "If your kid is talking about issues with friends, your response should not be 'I'll go call their mothers.'" says Kennedy-Moore. Instead, ask your kid what she thinks she should do. "If you try to solve all of your kids' problems, you're robbing them of the ability to solve themselves," she tells WebMD.

Make sure everyone gets a turn. Does one kid tend to monopolize conversation at dinner, while another remains silent? Don't just muzzle the talky kid. "Encourage the more articulate child to ask questions of the sibling," he tells WebMD. "Get your kids to talk to each other instead of just talking to you."

A successful family dinner isn't only about the conversation (or the food.) Setting the tone and the structure for your meal will help. Here are some tips.

  1. Get rid of distractions. Remove books and magazines from the table. Turn off the TV. Silence the cell phones and put them in another room.
  2. Get kids involved in making the food. Your kids are more likely to be enthusiastic about dinner -- and try new foods -- if they've played a role in making the meal. You can also start talking while you cook together. "Kids are more likely to open up when you're shoulder to shoulder, working together, instead of facing each other in a direct conversation," says Kennedy-Moore.
  3. Adapt. If your teen's play late rehearsal or practice is making family dinner impossible, change things up. What about shifting to a family breakfast instead? "There's nothing magical about dinner time specifically," says Kennedy-Moore. "All you need is a predictable time that you spend together." If your teen is getting home very late, sit down and have a cup of tea with him while he eats leftovers, says Kennedy-Moore.
  4. Keep it short. "Dinner doesn't have to go on and on," says Kennedy-Moore. "A lot of kids are done eating in 15 minutes." You don't need to drag things out artificially.
  5. Keep it simple. Don't have time to make a delicious, nutritious, home-cooked meal every night? Who does? Don't let that stop you from having a family dinner together most nights.

"Eating together doesn't mean that mom has to slave for hours on a brisket," says Kennedy-Moore. "If you're having take-out or box mac & cheese, make the minimal effort to put it on plates and sit down together." It's the togetherness that matters, not the main course.