What’s dinner time like at your house? Rushed, harried, or stressful? All eyes on the TV or cell phones constantly dinging? Or was your answer more like “What dinner time?”
Healthy food isn’t the only good reason for families to share meals together.
“There are benefits of having regular family dinners, but the benefits don’t come from making a three-course gourmet meal,” says Anne K. Fishel, PhD, associate clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of Home for Dinner. “They come from the warm, welcoming, relaxed atmosphere at the table.”
How can you get everyone to slow down and enjoy each other? Try these tips to turn a stressful family meal into an enjoyable nightly tradition.
The problem: You can’t get everyone to the table.
If you’re having a hard time getting your kids to sit down and eat, take a look at your own behavior, too. “Parents need to be on the same page, modeling the idea that this is something that we want to do as a family,” says Adelle Cadieux, PsyD, pediatric psychologist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, MI. “That means getting to the table when the meal is ready rather than finishing ‘one more thing.’”
With little kids who can’t seem to sit still, focus on the positive. Praise them when they do manage to stay in their chairs, rather than scolding them when they’re too squirmy. And don’t expect perfection every time. “For a toddler, you might not get more than 10 minutes of seated dinnertime, and that’s OK,” Cadieux says.
The problem: People are glued to a screen.
Again, your own habits make a difference. One study of 55 families found that parents were more likely than kids to be distracted by their phones during a meal. “Parents don’t realize that when they’re on their phones, even though it might be work-related and they think it’s really important, they’re essentially telling their kids that it’s OK to have a device at the table,” Cadieux says.
How to cut the cord? For some families, it’s enough to just say “no gadgets, period!” Switch off the TV before dinner, and try passing around a basket for everyone to stow their phones during the meal.
Other families might allow a little more lenience, like watching a movie together during Friday night dinner, or using a phone to fact-check something in the conversation.
Whatever your rules, stick to them. One of Fishel’s favorite consequences for breaking the rules: Whoever sneaks a peek at their screen has to do the dishes.
The problem: Conversation tends to turn into arguments.
Every family has some hot-button issues, whether it’s a disappointing report card, a broken curfew, or college applications. “Dinner is not the time to bring up a touchy subject,” Fishel says. “Wait until you’ve eaten and had a chance to connect with each other, and then set aside a time to talk about more serious topics.”
Another argument trap: Obsessing over table manners. “It’s better to focus on those manners that promote more respectful conversation, like not talking over someone,” Fishel says.
If it’s the kids who are fighting with one another, distraction can be a useful tool. Try changing up the seating so that siblings aren’t next to each other. Or switching the focus by starting a game, like “two truths and a lie.”
Keep in mind, though, that there’s a difference between bickering and healthy verbal debate. At the dinner table, “kids can learn to sharpen their wits or voice their opinions in a safe environment, which provides them with later skills for the classroom or the office,” Fishel says.
The problem: The kids won’t really talk to you.
It’s pretty common for kids to clam up about their lives, especially around the teen years. And while “How was school?” might open the floodgates for some kids, more often it tends to get you one-word answers and awkward silence.
“Remember that some of those seemingly innocent questions -- ‘so how was this class today?’ or ‘how’s that project going?’ -- are actually kind of stressful for kids,” Cadieux says. Instead, try to talk about things that you know your child really likes, like a hobby or after-school club. “Paying attention to their interests can get them to open up,” Cadieux says.
You can also try playing a word game or telling family stories. Either way, the goal is to make your dinner table as enjoyable and stress-free as possible, even when life is anything but.