6 Things Emotionally Healthy Families Do at the Dinner Table

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Hayley Kessner)

Some nights it feels like a major feat if everyone in my family eats dinner — let alone the idea of us all doing it together. As in, at the same time. With both kids involved in travel sports and my husband and I ending work at different times, we often graze in shifts: My sons get fed by their sitter, I scarf down hummus and carrots (and, ahem, some brie), and my husband hoovers up the leftovers.

But no matter how crazy life gets, I know there are good reasons to slow down and sync up for the family-meal thing. The simple act of sitting down for a shared meal on a regular basis brings health and happiness benefits. Children who eat with their families are less likely to be depressed and may do better in school, according to research.

There’s no question that eating slowly with friends and family (as they do in Italy and Greece) is better for your heart and waistline than our typical American wham-bam eating mode.

The good news: You don’t have to bend over backwards trying to create rituals that’ll actually work in the real world. Here’s what busy, happy families do to make mealtimes matter.

1. They sit down together.

The family table is the great equalizer, points out Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby. “You’re all sitting at the same table, at the same level,” she says. “There’s less of a parent-child dynamic and more of a family dynamic.” Joining dinner conversations as a kid is where Smith Brody, a mom of two, learned to think and talk for herself: “At dinner, my day was as important as my dad’s day. It is great for kids to feel that sense of inclusion.”

2. But they don’t do it every single day.

President Obama put so much stock in the family meal that he made a point of having dinner with Michelle and their daughters at 6:30 at least five days a week, according to biographer Jodi Kantor. He was busy (leader of the Free World and all) so he wasn’t able to pull off perfect attendance, and that’s just fine. “Having dinner every night is just not always possible,” concedes mom blogger Dawn Yanek of Momsanity. “What is important is carving out times when you can to set aside distractions and focus on the important little people right in front of you.”

3. They mix up their meal togetherness.

This bonding time doesn’t have to happen at dinner! Many parents with unpredictable schedules find breakfast is an easier sit-down meal, reports Smith Brody, who consults with companies to create better cultures for working parents. There’s a benefit to a shared breakfast: Establishing a morning ritual may make your day feel less harried. Just keep the menu simple — try make-ahead recipes like egg cups or overnight oats, not homemade crepes.

4. They power down.

There’s no way to compete with Clash of Clans or a Facebook feed, for that matter. That’s why Jancee Dunn, author of How to Not Hate Your Husband After Kids, has a strict no-electronics rule around her Brooklyn, NY, table. No phones means they actually have to (get to!) talk to each other. “Our dinner ritual involves our 8-year-old daughter asking a question, and we all have to answer. Recent questions include: If you could have one superpower, what would it be? If you could eat one food every day for the rest of your life, what would you have? My favorite part is that my husband gives these long, considered answers.”

5. They remember the point (and it’s not the food).

Perfectionism, stand down. “Millennial moms in particular have outsized expectations in the workplace and at home,” says Smith Brody. “A lot feel if they’re working they must make homemade organic baby food. They can lose sight of the big picture.” Dinner doesn’t have to be something that’ll get 100 likes on Instagram. It doesn’t even have to be homemade!

6. They know they don’t have to literally be at the table.

Alas, we don’t all have the reclaimed oak trestle table of our Pinterest dreams. So does a communal chowfest — gasp — in front of the TV count?

It’s the moment that matters, not your GPS coordinates, stress the experts. “If we’re all in the same room, we’re good,” says Dunn. “Sometimes on a Saturday afternoon, I’ll just set out cheese and crackers and fruit and maybe some prosciutto on the coffee table and we’ll all just graze and sometimes talk. That is my definition of a family meal.”

Yanek has her own version of the alterna-family meal: a picnic spread out on the living room floor with her 5- and 2-year-olds. “It gets everyone relaxed and talking. I tried this recently as we watched E.T. for the first time, and the kids felt like they were almost doing something naughty. They’re begging me to do it again soon.”

Our own take is a little (OK, a lot) more middlebrow: A Friday night ritual of Chinese food in front of a NY Mets game. Martha Stewart would convulse if she saw us spooning food directly from takeout tins, but hey, we’re together, we’re happy, and nobody’s trying to clear a level of Minecraft.

What mealtime habits or rituals do you guys have?