Family dinner. Do you have one regularly? For many of us, the family dinner was a big deal growing up — a ritual with its own rules and expectations. (Give thanks beforehand. No elbows on the table. Clean up after yourself!) Curious to see how time may have trifled with family dinner, we asked you to share the rules and habits you use today to keep your family dinner — however family looks to you! — humming in harmony.
What we discovered is that some things never change. Here are our readers' five most cited or recommended family rules.
1. No reading and no screens at the dinner table ...
This was the rule that came up again and again: No TV, no phones, and no reading at the table. The rationale? We all lead busy and scattered lives that offer limited opportunities for focused one-on-one time, but a family dinner is a chance to unplug and engage. (Also, using your phone at the table is just rude.)
My wife and I have one simple rule: No electronics while eating. TV is turned off — iPhones and iPads, too. This time is to talk to each other and enjoy our food. - Tovilin
The idea of family dinner is so ingrained in me that I can't imagine us sitting there silently reading books or looking at electronic devices. The idea of two people sitting there at the table each silently reading a book is just bizarre to me. It only seems natural that you would want to spend that time talking about the day. - Katepk
No electronics at the table (the boys don't have phones yet, but mom and dad are prohibited from bringing theirs). - Andy A
... unless that's part of your wind-down routine!
While most readers with kids seem firmly in the no-technology-at-dinner camp, many couples said they enjoy watching Netflix while they eat, or having a quiet meal together reading and unwinding with a book or Twitter feed. Those habits have become rules of their own, and not unwelcome ones. (Not sure how you feel about this? You're not alone.)
My boyfriend and I will sit at the table for most meals or (if the meal is easy to eat, like stew) we will eat on the couch watching an episode of "our" show on Netflix (usually only for really great shows). We don't have a no-phone rule, but try to only use it to answer texts if we have plans after dinner, or look up something to settle a debate about an actor or something silly. - Acisor
We both have to agree on the TV show to watch — usually a cooking program. No phone calls or internet surfing, though. - Emmasaltsugar
Now that it's my partner and me, we eat on the couch watching TV. The only rule, which is mine, is that we can't watch anything too tense because it makes me mindlessly bolt my food! We eat late-ish and have spent the last couple of hours together, usually having cooked together, so we're okay with it not being "quality" family time. This would definitely change with kids in the picture. - romi_
I'm sure there are plenty who would be horrified by this, but sometimes it's just too much effort to sit at a table and make conservation for half an hour. We don't really like talking about work because we've just spent a whole day at work and want to get away from it at home! It's nice to just "be" with each other, without any need to entertain the other person — and the TV lets us do that. -MadeinLondon
[We're a] married couple, with one dog and one cat. We both work full time, so we split cooking duties. We're flexible about actually eating at the table; we probably actually set it and eat there two nights a week, and the rest of the time we're together at our huge coffee table in the den. As introverts, we're perfectly capable of deciding together that we don't want to talk about our days and would rather veg and read/watch TV (this is always mutual, though; if one of us needs to talk/vent, that need trumps the veg need of the other). - Magi11
2. Compliment and thank the cook. Be gracious.
For many readers, family dinner is the time to teach manners, or remember manners they were taught themselves. It's a time to give thanks, say thanks, and be gracious towards the cook and your co-diners. For those with kids, dinner is dinner! You don't have to like it, but you do have to try it.
We don't say grace (we're a secular family), but we do take time to thank whoever helped with preparing the meal. - Kayla Sue Who
We always show gratitude. If the meal is horrid, we find something nice to say regardless. - Emmasaltsugar
We have also discouraged the kids from saying "ew" about foods they don't like, and substitute "that's not my favorite," which is now a useful term for many things as they have grown up! - Rebecca ABC
You must try a bite of everything, but you don't have to like it (aka, "no-thank-you bite"). - dcirene
Dinner is dinner. You don't have to eat it if you don't want to, but I'm not going to cook you anything special, and your next snack is 2 to 3 hours away. We never insist on cleaning your plate. - crafty beaver
No complaining/making rude comments/discussing various merits of food that someone else is eating. For example, if someone puts horseradish on their mashed potatoes, you are not allowed to say that it is gross. - suemari
3. Have a conversation. Ask questions.
While some people like to eat together in an easy silence (see #1 above), for other readers, family dinner is when you talk — about the day, ideas, problems, something funny, an interesting fact. (If you're one half of a couple, you may want to start here.)
Have a conversation. Tell about your day, something funny, something you learned, etc. We try to be at the table at least an hour through dessert and coffee/tea and maintain the conversation. We encourage [our kids] to ask other people questions rather than only talking about themselves. We hope conversational skills will impress future dates, as well as colleagues and employers. - Andy A
It took moving to a new house that had the dining room far away from the TV area to get what I finally wanted! And I have to say I love our meal times; while there can be stressful times with two young kids, in general our dinners are naturally evolving to include conversation, which is really wonderful. I hope our dinners are always a time to connect; as the kids grow and get busier, we will need it! - JS in PC
4. Help clean up. (But give the cook a break!)
Many readers, both with kids and without, shared some version of helping to clean up after dinner as one of their non-negotiable rules. Everyone has to pitch in to clear the table, load the dishwasher, and wash the dishes — except the cook! Whoever made the meal gets a break.
Everyone has to clear their own plate and we encourage one of them to clear the cook's plate too, as a gesture of thankfulness and kindness. During the week, I serve from the stove, so there's nothing really to clear, but on the weekend I often serve family style, so then everyone is responsible for helping to clear the table and put things away. - kalisis
Growing up we always ate at the dining room table — kids set the table, someone said grace, there was always classical music on, and you had to ask to be excused, then help clear the table. I remember going to my cousins' house, and got up and left the table when they were done eating and left their dishes at the table, and I was horrified! - Caralovesyou
We've recently decided that everybody takes their plate and cutlery to the dishwasher, plus one other thing. - herzsprung
Our family of three sits down at the table together each night and the 7-year-old daughter's job is to set the table and clear the table, rinse plates, put things in the dishwasher, etc. Both hubs and I grew up in families where sitting down together each night was the norm (absent sports practices, extra-curricular activities as we got older) so it was just natural for us to do the same. - rosebud
If you didn't cook, you should help set and clear the table (ideally to the dishwasher, but minimally to the kitchen). - crafty beaver
Everyone helps because there are lots of dishes/leftovers/pans/etc. in a family of 5 (even though my siblings and I are all out at school now), but the general concept is that if you cook, you don't clean up (as much), and vice versa. I figured out very early on that if I helped my dad cook, I wouldn't have to clean up, so I started learning from the age of 5 and never looked back. - Rocket Science
5. Make at least one meal of the week a special occasion.
We all know weeknights can be crazy, and sometimes it's just enough to get a little food into everyone before headed to bed or back to work. That's why a number of readers have taken to setting aside one meal of the week — usually a Sunday dinner — as a special-occasion dinner. It's not necessarily fancy — just a bit more intentional.
We also have Shabbat dinner on Friday nights which isn't fancy, but does involve candles, juice for the kids (which is a rare treat), wine for me, and challah, which we all love and is sometimes the main component of the meal! - JS in PC
On Sundays, we try to make a nice dinner and use our dining room, and we actually have the boys make a list of questions on paper to keep the conversation going. - AndyA
Family dinner at the the table is our tradition, too. A set table, cloth napkins, and no phones are the basics. Sunday dinner was mandatory. Through the years there have been challenges to maintaining this habit — often when the children were younger I would spend a considerable amount of time cooking a meal that they really did not want to sit still for, might not be their favorite foods, and was over with in just a few minutes. I'm glad we stuck to our guns, though, because now it is something they have continued in their own young, post-college life, with friends.
Don't give up! Our family composition has changed and we are not able to get together as often, but family dinner remains important to us all. - Rose Merry
Postscript: It should be noted that the list of rules our readers with young kids enforce at the table is quite extensive and often hilarious, including but not limited to: No feet on the table, no nipples at the table, no singing at the table, no chanting or rapping at the table, no burping at the table, no touching other people at the table, you must wear a shirt at the table, you must wear pants at the table, you must wear underwear at the table. (Hang in there, parents!)
Any family dinner rules you're hoping to start in 2016, readers?
(Image credits: Leela Cyd; David & Deborah Hopler of D Squared Photography & Video; Alexis Buryk; Chris Perez; Rachel Joy Baransi)