The family meal: a place for common ground

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About Rae

Rae Grant is the author and book designer of the popular vintage-modern children's activities books Crafting Fun and Cooking Fun. Her third book, Homemade Fun: 101 Crafts and Activities to Do With Kids will be released in June 2010. Rae lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter, and their family cat Blue.

When I look back on my family memories as both a child and as a parent, some of my fondest recollections revolved around our traditions for the family meal. It was the daily ritual of our family meals that pulled us all into the same orbit at least once a day, all week long. It was a place for common ground.

A good family meal is nourishing, restorative, allows for conversation and simple exchanges to take place. It marks a beginning and an end to a day of work and activities, and it allows families to touch base, tell stories, connect, laugh, and be supportive about the day ahead.

In our fast modern times, slowing down for a family meal can be a bit of a challenge. Busy schedules, longer work days, and eating on the run can deprive home life of this special time. Here are a few tips that encourage this time-honored ritual and help to keep the family meal running smoothly.

1. Prepare simple healthy, tasty food.

Add variety each week so meals aren’t totally predictable. Serving good food is essential to making this ritual stick.

2. Share and assign tasks.

It’s no fun, not mention exhausting, to be the solo cook, organize all the meals, and clean up, too. In my experience that only leads to burnout and frozen food!

Spouses, partners, and kids can share in the planning and execution of the family dinner. Making salads, peeling carrots, pouring the water, setting the table all contribute to the final organization of the meal. Get your kids to help you at an early age. Very young ones can be taste testers.

3. Serve meals around the same time every day.

Setting an established time for meals sets the internal clock for stopping all activities, and it promotes a healthy eating habit. Eat early enough to ward off major snacking before hand.

4. Have a moment of silence before eating.

Whether it’s a prayer, a pause, or simply silence, this always sets a tone of appreciation for the meal.

5. Promote the art of conversation.


Photo by Woodley Wonderworks

Ask about your child’s day. Teaching children that their opinion and experiences matter is invaluable. Each person should have a turn to speak up at the table. Eventually, the ebb and flow of conversation will develop naturally and kids can come to expect a mini platform in which to express what is happening in their lives and in their play.

6. Share ideas, news, and stories often.

Many important stories can emerge during the course of a good family meal. I have always found it to offer a window into my child’s world.

7. Families can learn to build food values by discussing food quality.

Use the family meal as an opportunity to evaluate the goodness of the food that is being served. Discuss the food on the table, which foods have lots of fiber, which foods have good fat and bad fat.

Serve fruits and vegetables with a conversation about how they are grown, where they are from. Discuss where the family might improve on their good eating habits. This type of assessment helps us all prepare and eat better meals.

8. When the meal is over, have everyone help clear the table.

This simple act of courtesy signifies an end to the meal. Dashing off without being excused somehow sends the signal that is okay to disregard the effort that was just made to feed the family.

9. Keep trying.

It’s an effort to create a consistent and good experience for the family meal. It doesn’t just happen by luck. In fact, children and busy schedules work against this concept. It’s worth the work.

My family sits down for breakfast and dinner every night, and whether it is a fritata or a several course meal, we eat together. We eat, talk, get goofy, clean up, and move into the daily rituals with some sense of restoration.

How do you make your family meal sacred?

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Comments

  1. In this day in age a lot of families don’t take the time to enjoy each other. I totally agree that family dinner is the best opportunity! My family eats dinner together EVERY night and I hope we can try to keep it like that! Thanks for posting these great ideas!
    Hanan´s latest post: Almost Wordless Wednesday

  2. I have very fond memories of family dinners. My dad was such a great storyteller and dinner was the time where he would recount how he got into mischief when he was a young boy. I remember us all in tears laughing. Moments to cherish! Now my husband has taken on that role and it’s so cute to see how my little boy is all ears when his dad is exaggerating his past adventures.
    Norah @ Femita´s latest post: Personal Budget Management For Dummies

  3. We are very big on family meals and even though now my husband works shifts, we try and have two major meals together- lunch and dinner. It is amazing how much our toddler has learnt by being at the table with us.
    Thank you for highlighting this oft-forgotten aspect of being a family!
    Blessings
    prerna´s latest post: How to Have a Simple To-Do List

  4. We LOVE family dinners, and these are great tips.

    The only thing I would add is to use simple traditions and rituals to make it even more special… light a candle (or more), use place mats and the “good” dishes more frequently, pick some beautiful flowers (kids love to do this themselves… and could care less if they’re dandelions!).

    We’ve started using a candle every night and I LOVE the element it adds to dinner :)
    My Butterfly Nest´s latest post: The Bad News Is

  5. I couldn’t agree more. My husband and I sit down to eat dinner together and now that we have a newborn I hope to continue it as our family grows. Some wonderful friends of ours eat breakfast and dinner together. During breakfast they do a daily Scripture reading with their girls and discuss it
    Amber Cullum´s latest post: Christmas Morning Frittata

  6. Even with just a two year old and a 5 month old I see the incredible value of family meals. My two year old lights up at the table and really tries to have conversations with us about his day, what he like, etc. Even with his limited vocabulary, I see improvements in his speech and ability to communicate. Enjoyed this post!
    S. M.´s latest post: Strawberries – Yummy to the Tummy

  7. I had strict family meals when I grew up. Meals were stressful. But I chose to parent another way.
    Traditions, taking turns saying grace, conversation, jokes, table manners, unity, trying new foods, sharing the day’s highlights … these are the joys of family meals.
    Our family members take turns setting the table, clearning and preparing the meals and each child tries to serve the family with a positive attitude. Even when their friends visit, they are included in family meals and all that goes before, during and after the meals.
    Some nights are loud and busy. There is laughter and a light-hearted atmosphere. These are the memories I hope my children will carry into their adult lives.
    Nadene´s latest post: Art Sketch Tuesday “J” for …

  8. Family meals are so important. I grew up in a household that did it always for dinner, and lunch in the summer with Mom (while Dad was at work). While I live on my own now, I really hope that once I’m married that I’ll be able to continue this tradition.

  9. I grew up in a house with a stay at home mom and my mom made dinner every night and no matter what we had to be there. I really appreciate it. My biggest problem now is that my husband’s schedule is irratic and he works at night a lot (he is a musician) so in order to have a family meal sometimes we have to eat late (8:00 pm) or very early (3:00pm). A lot of times I find myself feeding my son at a different time than us.

  10. What timing! My husband and I both had this discussion this weekend. For the past few years of our married life, we’ve had dinner very casually – usually in front of the TV, I’m ashamed to admit. :) But we decided that now that we have our little guy (five months old) we would start having sit down dinners. So we started last night. It was great! We discussed our day and current events and just chatted – it was wonderful. I’m just sorry we didn’t start earlier. I can definitely see the benefits especially with children as you want to have a time set aside just for the family. That’s very important in this busy, crazy world in which we live!
    Tabitha (From Single to Married)´s latest post: Sometimes You Just Have to Get Away

  11. I’m a single mother of three and my sweet two year old has just begun taking his plate to the sink after his meal. He is so proud and so cute! I’m grateful for the history and consistency of family meals in our home and can see the fruit of this daily labor of love!
    Missy June´s latest post: Oh No-

  12. @Tabitha – I hear you. My husband and I eat sitting down on the floor of our family room using our coffee table as the dining table and watch tv while we eat. Last night we had a power outage @ dinner time and it was so weird having to actually talk and pay attention to each other.

    We have a 1 year old, and he eats much earlier than us (we usually eat ~8pm), given that he goes to bed so early. He goes to daycare and we both work, my husband comes home late from work. Any thoughts on how to handle this as my son grows older?

    • Maybe you could focus on making one family breakfast/brunch on the weekend at least once a month. Make it a new ritual.Weekends are a great time to make foods that might not fit into the weekday schedule (like pancakes, scrambled eggs and fresh muffins, fruit salad…). Even if your one year old isn’t eating those foods- the kids pick up on the eating habits and they can have a little taste of your food too…which can help them to expand their taste buds!

    • I’m struggling with the working/daycare/late husband issues as well. We used to do the same thing when my son was younger. Now that we have two, I try to eat a frantic meal with the kids and my husband reheats when he gets home.

      Another option is to have breakfast be your family meal. When I was growing up, we had so many evening activities, that we only had dinner as a family a couple times a week. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that we ALWAYS ate breakfast as a family before school/work. My parents were smart.

      Granted, breakfast doesn’t work for us either as my husband leaves for work before 7 AM and the kids get breakfast at daycare. We do love our weekend morning meals, though.

  13. I think the key is to keep trying. Schedules change, and so much demands for our attention and time. Striving to keep the evening meal a happy tradition is worth the effort. It might only be 2-3 nights a week, like it has been for us while my husband takes night classes and finished his graduate degree. But I have tried to not let that discourage me. I try to remember that my children are learning to 1) value time together 2) have good table manners 3) have all different kinds of conversation (funny stories, serious stories, discussing current events, sharing ideas, asking/answering questions) and 4) appreciate food prepared at home. There is something sacred about sharing food with others, and I usually light a candle in the middle of the table to remind us (I occasionally remind my kids, and sometimes they remind me!) of our unseen Guest.

  14. What a great article! Thank you so much!
    I recently published a post on the benefits of eating meals at home, and it is astounding what an impact family dinners can have on kids!
    Judy´s latest post: My Story- Third Grade

  15. avatar
    Cynthia says:

    That is one thing we try to do, is eat dinner together. Our family is small and young, so we can eat together now. I think it might be more challenging when my son gets older and he is busy with school, sports and extra curricular activities. But I figure if we instill in him now the importance of eating dinner together as a family, we will continue to do it even has he becomes a teenager and has more responsibilities.

  16. I so wish we could have family meals… but it just never seems to work out. My husband’s schedule is so unpredictable. He often doesn’t get home until after 7 or 8. By then my three-year-old is staring and/or asleep.
    Ivy´s latest post: More Like Falling In Love

  17. Eating dinner together has been a must for our little family since the kiddies were little. Now, as teens, it’s obvious that they still enjoy our chatty time together at the table.
    Teri´s latest post: Yo- See Me…T

  18. My husband, chilren and I have always had family meal time even when my husband was “away” for work (Navy deployments, then shift work later). Dinner is at 6 pm during the week, and at 5 pm on weekends. Once a month, on a weekend, we host a family dinner that includes our parents, and siblings so we can all catch up. I have siblings that no longer live in the same state and they always comment on how much they miss family dinners!

  19. The family meal is our practice as well, though sometimes my husband comes home too late to join us. It is hard to think of anything more family defining than a meal together. Recently, over the past holiday week end, my husband set up a table on the deck and we enjoyed breakfast, lunch and dinner outdoors, surrounded by trees, puppies and a colorful banner of laundry drying on the line.
    Sara´s latest post: Homemade Gatorade

  20. avatar
    maryann says:

    I work until 7pm. My husband cooks. Our boys are 9 & 12. Very often we do not start eating until 8pm. And then I still have to check their homework. It’s stressful.

    Sometimes I wish they would go ahead & eat without me, but my husband is adamant that we all eat together. And in reality this is the best thing for all of us. It keeps the priority on Family. I cannot stay late at work, and the boys cannot stay late at soccer practice. We all get to chat a little about our day, and I get to have a glass of wine. :)

    I read that when familes eat together, the kids are much less likely to smoke, and do drugs, and get depressed. So hopefully, it’s all worth it in the long run.

  21. We put all of our kids in booster seats instead of high chairs (as soon as they could sit up) so that they were at the same table with the rest of the family. From the beginning, they know that we all eat together. We had to eat with my husband many nights last year due to his work schedule, but made EVERY weekend meal a priority.

  22. Thanks for the reminder to keep trying! And I really appreciate everyone else who’s able to admit how challenging (yet important) this is. With two littles (3yr and 8mo), I feel like we spend more of the meal up getting things – “I need a drink,” “I dropped my fork,” “what else can the baby eat?” etc – than actually eating and talking. Part of the problem is our frantic rush to get dinner on the table after dinner. Even with meal planning and cooking ahead, there’s just never enough time between work and starving meltdown… But, our efforts will pay off later, right?
    Alissa´s latest post: Irony

  23. Alissa, we have the same problem at our house. My son is close to two, and he doesn’t seem to have a big appetite at dinnertime. So, invariably, he is finished eating about 5 minutes into the meal, or asking for more milk, etc. My husband and I are still eating our meal and trying to have a conversation, but it’s difficult. We allow our son to get down from the table when he’s done eating, and we’re trying to impress upon him that we are still enjoying our meal. I do think he like sitting up at the table with us, but a true family meal that’s enjoyable for everyone still seems a ways off.

    • One thing I noticed over the years about getting meals to an enjoyable level for all is to serve food that everyone loves! Maybe that sounds obvious but the focus on good simple food and the pleasure of the meal can make the experience very positive.

      I have also spent years running back and forth to the kitchen during a meal and still have to make a concerted effort to get all the food on the table and have everyone wait to begin at the same time…one thing that helps with this goal is to use a tray or platter to deliver and clear the meal. (how Martha but my elderly mother-in-law taught me that trick and it generally works).

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  25. Thanks for this post – so incredibly useful. We try and eat together when we can but my husband works away a lot so whoever is there, still sits down and eats together. I love hearing all the chat from the day. Sometimes we even put my husband on video skype at the end of the table – so we can chat to him while eating. Sometimes it works – sometimes it doesn’t!

  26. To keep family meals part of my family’s busy schedule, we use the free meal planning tools available at http://www.MealsMatter.org, a family nutrition website sponsored by my employer Dairy Council of California. Because kids will eat what’s available, I’ve always served milk with dinner to make sure we’re getting enough calcium and vitamin D and stocked the fridge with yogurt, fruit and other healthy foods. Luckily, family meals don’t have to be elaborate to be beneficial. Check out this new online Back to School 30-Minute Family Meals cookbook for some great mix and match family dinner ideas!
    Tammy Anderson-Wise´s latest post: Kung Pao Tofu

  27. Fabulous advice!

    It’s never too early to start either! Although it doesn’t happen every single night, because my husband works late, my three year old absolutely loves to tell Daddy how his day was over dinner. He senses the connection, and we enjoy our time together. I’ve already started asking him to put his plate and fork in the sink for me, and praising him for his help. I look forward to being proud of our little conversationalist (and one more on the way) and a long life of family meals.
    Tiffany´s latest post: Jan 1- LOVE this website!!

  28. I actually lived on a farm so I grew and picked the food I ate. Not all of the food was from the garden or barn but I would say 50% of it was. We had fun at the dinner table unless it was liver night which was bad.

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