Why We Don’t Need Family Dinners

Lisa writes: I moved heaven and earth to get my family to the dinner table all together on an almost nightly basis, believing that in parenting terms, this was the Holy Grail.  Turns out, I was wrong.

Google “Family Dinner” and you will find a raft of articles claiming that if you eat dinner with your kids they will be less likely to use drugs or get into trouble and more likely to eat fruits and vegetables. Other studies suggest regular family meals are associated with improved academic performance.

family dinners, eating dinner with family

I had read these articles and heard this received wisdom and never questioned why the 20 minutes that it takes three teenage boys to wolf down a meal and jump up in time to be scolded for not clearing their place, could have such a profound impact on my kids later lives.  It turns out that it doesn’t.

Web MD suggests that family dinners reduce stress and tension at home.  But given how much I have stressed about getting us all the to table at the same time, I am pretty sure that this could not be true either.

On Fast Company, Laura Vanderkam suggests as an alternative family breakfast. After all, we are all there in the morning and everyone has to eat, she argues.  In my house, only three of the five of us eat in the morning, one leaves before the others awake and one eats in the car…not really a solution.  But was a solution needed?

Two professors, Ann Meier and Kelly Musick,  took a long deep look at the evidence for family dinners.  They noted that academic achievement and positive teenage behaviors have been associated with families that ate together in a large number of studies.  Yet when they delved into the data and stripped out the quality of family relationships, the degree to which parents monitored their kids, how they spent their time together and the availability of financial resources, suddenly the story changed. The researchers noted that, “We found no direct, lasting effects of family dinners on mental health, drug and alcohol use or delinquency.”  It was family connections, not meals, that mattered.

We had family dinner almost every night by eating at ever-changing times and eeking out whatever overlap existed in five people’s schedules.  Dinner at our house could be at 5:15 or at 8:45, with huge complaints all around about not being hungry yet or being starved by a mother who is waiting for a father to return. Bruce Feiler, who has studied what makes happy families happy, suggests that there is only about 10 minutes of valuable time at a family meal, which, frankly, made me feeling much better about my family.

What happened at this blissful dinner? Let’s be honest. I nagged about homework and chores not completed.  My younger sons fought. Someone complained about the food. Someone spilled the food on their clothing and, at almost every meal, I could be found at the kitchen sink trying to rinse the stain out.  My husband recounted a soccer game in great detail with one of the boys while I tuned out with another. And someone sneaked food to the dog, which is strictly forbidden.

Some studies suggested that kids who eat with their families developed healthier eating habits.  But here, too, I will take issue.  Do we really sit around the table discussing vitamins and calories or is it just because when we don’t cook for our families we grab a pizza or some other insidious take-out and serve that as dinner?   If I served my kids healthy food and stocked my house with it, wouldn’t that be enough?  Do they really need to see me eating it with them?

What did work?

Long dinners spent around a restaurant table on vacation or just in our neighborhood.  Meals that lasted up to two hours with five relaxed family members truly engaged in a conversation about our day, our world or ourselves.  No texting, no nagging, no dirty kitchen and dishes, only a stain being let to set on someone’s clothing….one happy family.

Long car journeys with a trapped teen.  The magic of not having to look a teenager in the face can open up a conversation in ways unimaginable.  Research from Columbia showed that car rides were where teens spilled, talking earnestly to parents.  This squares with my experience.

Long session over a Monopoly Board.  Yes the loser got testy and, yes, I was bored senseless, but all of us seated in one place for a multi-hour period of time is how real conversation happens.

Husband and I took turns taking one kid (we have three) away for a night to a hotel in a nearby city.  We made it a point to undertake the activities that child was interested in and eat foods that that child preferred.  We stayed up late chatting in the hotel room.  We only did this every year or two, but each kid can recall their overnights alone with a parent in minute detail and so can we.

Movie nights for five in the livingroom.  Out of town soccer tournaments with just one son. The five of us in a motel room with two double beds, one roll away and a small TV with poor reception.  Baring outside entertainment, any family will talk.

Feiler’s bottom line:  Family dinner is less about the “dinner” and more about the “family.” Two decades of parenting experience bears this out.  Making myself crazy and making my sons hungry as they waited for their father or a sibling was not what brought my family together. It was time we spent together, at a beach, in our hurricane darkened living room, or just sitting in our children’s bedroom before they fell asleep that made the difference.  It was the long heart-felt, or simply funny, conversations with five people deeply connected that is the glue that holds us together and dinner had nothing to do with it.



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Comments

  1. That was great. I second the car rides – I think my daughter opened up to me many times during those long rides to dances classes or competitions, things I really needed to know to “know” where she was at, mentally and emotionally. My husband and son developed a very close relationship through basketball – my husband was an excellent mentor to him (much better than I was as a “dance mentor” as the only dance experience I’d had was disco). I think it’s the unexpected moments where you bond. And sometimes it’s after friction-y moments on vacation, for instance. You may not feel like you are bonding at that particular moment; but long after you feel bonded when you reminisce and are able to laugh at those less-than-picture-perfect family moments. So…the best moments, the best bonding experiences, from OUR experience, were unplanned. I also gotta say – let’s just remove all studies/research/expert advice from influencing what our instincts say we should do. So much of that crap, er, advice, is opinion or just plain flawed. As you discovered. So there!

    • I cannot agree with you more about the unexpected moments. You plan out these great family events and nothing. The power goes out for a week and your family has an amazing experience…these things cannot be predicted, can they.

  2. You have no idea how much I needed to read this. I’ve been beating myself up a lot about not being able to pull the holy grail of regular family dinners off for a while now. Thank you.

    • Read the NYTimes article and you will feel much better! It really is the time, not the meal. Every family has their own way of pulling together the researchers find and not surprisingly the kids who did the best were those who were watched closely by their parents, not just at the dinner table!

  3. Oh no. I did the same for YEARS! Dinner table all the way – I refuse to believe the studies. Besides, where else were we going to clean guns, if not the dinner table? :)

  4. happy outlook says:

    I’ve always loved having dinner together and now even more so since my kids are scattered and I treasure the times we can eat together and talk. That said, I agree that it’s not the dinner but the togetherness that makes a difference.

  5. We camped and boated growing up. I know we are still close today because of those activities. And when we camped and boated we hiked and sat under the stars around a campfire and waterskiied and hung out and laughed and played cards and were away from other people and school and friends and those are the things I remember – they remember.

  6. When my three children were growing up we tried to do family dinners most nights and for the most part it worked although I can’t say we sat there longer then 30 minutes. Everyone gave a brief update on their day at school; sometimes it was the only way I learned what was going on except–as others noted–for the car rides to/from social events and sports. That’s precious time along in a car with just one other child, esp in the dark when they don’t have to look you in the eye. They really open up.

    Fast forward a decade or so to our current empty nest and I admit appreciating not watching the clock to get home from work by a certain time for dinner. My husband doesn’t care when he eats! But when my daughter post-college was home for six months while looking for a job she wanted family dinner every night (difference was she cooked!) and now my oldest with his wife and two little girls comes over every Sunday for dinner. So the years of family dinners must have set a positive tone.

    • I would imagine that dinners with grown kids who do not live in your home are very different. No one running in different directions, no nagging or complaining! Those quality dinners are probably very different from some of the rushed affairs of earlier years.

  7. Though not the key to success, our family dinners were some of our very best times before the nest emptied. We all (my husband, three daughters and I) all smile in fond memory of dinner time. Not sure why it mattered, but it did… and still does.

    Great post. ♥

    • I am so glad Lisa, we have had some lovely ones too, and some filled with chaos and the feelings of forced togetherness. I should not have been so strict about always having dinner together. Parenting or Grandparenting calls for flexibility. Glad it still matters to your family!

  8. I have extremely fond memories of our family dinners – but they are even more special now that my kids are out of the house and they return weekly – on Sundays – for family dinner. It is our ritual which is soothing and meaningful. I will admit that all dinners – especially those when they were younger and everyone was scattered and rushed and stressed – were like this. But now, I look forward to those dinners all week.

    • I love that your family has this lovely ritual Sheryl, this must be a lovely way to start your week.

  9. I am somewhat relieved to read this–family dinners at our house were not always a happy occasion–I find when we get together and it is not planned we have the best times together

    • The two hurricanes we had in the last two years turned out to be amazing family time. It is safe to say that we did not plan this! Thanks for joining the conversation.

  10. In my experience anything that suggests a command performance ends up feeling like forced family time. I’m in favor of the idea of shared activities – ones that everyone is eager to join in with. It’s the family time without the complaining!

  11. BCE says:

    I allowed no phone calls during dinner, lit candles and put on music. My three children now grown loved those dinners and get angry when they are home and we don’t sit down together. We also had wonderful meals out and Sunday dinners, as well as special trips together. My husband rarely was home during the week, so it was me sitting down with the kids and any of their friends were welcome to join us. Many of their friends never sat down with their families and loved having a spot at the table. I would sit back and listen and I would learn a lot about what was happening in their lives. We had many controversial conversations as well. I will never forget the discussion about how long a condom can last in a wallet before it might be ineffective. Of course one son said that he would never keep one in his wallet that long!! If I didn’t sit with them, I would have never been privy to such inside secrets… Yes there are many ways to come together as a family, but sitting around a table sharing food and conversation seems to me an easy place to start.

    • I cannot imagine how you must have laughed, even if you kept it inside! I am laughing now reading this. I did love dinner with them, but was heartened to hear that it was time spent close together, doing anything we loved and shared that really mattered.

  12. This perspective sure would have made me feel better (at least a bit!) years ago when I’d feel guilt-ridden for not having “enough” family meals together! I so agree that the emphasis should be on quality family time…at meal time, in the car, at a restaurant, on vacation, over a card game, etc. Cheers to you!

  13. Cindy Malison says:

    I think for our family our nightly family dinners represented our commitment to putting our family above all else in our busy lives. My husband and I come from families whose parents believed in the value of nightly family dinner for the very reasons my husband and I share now. It is so easy to get caught up in the trappings of life without a firm commitment to family first. I am also speaking as a stay at home mom with a child who was a competitive figure skater, virtual schooled and I drove over 160 miles a day for many years. I fully understand cranky, hungry and not interested in participating, but we held tight to our commitment with no regrets. It taught us all to plan around the needs of our family, not our individuality.

    • I am impressed, really. I found that it was the competitive sports that for my family were the real scheduling challenge. Coaches call the shots and families work around ever changing schedules. I love your emphasis on commitment.

  14. I’ve always thought those articles about family dinner were the most over-hyped examples of correlation (not causation) that I’ve ever read. Families that are organized, connected, and in the house enough to create meals, may also happen to eat together. Oddly the meth-addicted abusive gamblers out there tend not to be sitting down to dinner with their kids, and also not doing well with the whole parenting thing in general.

    We do happen to sit down together for most meals because it’s currently the most efficient thing for us. I like it when our kids help us cook and we have a system where the kids have specific duties like clearing the table and running the dishwasher, etc. We do the meals as a team when we can, and it’s nice. But it’s not magically that way, it’s just part of how we do most things. I can’t imagine if my family were coming apart at the seams thinking somehow all of us sitting down for dinner would fix it.

    Anyway, excellent post. I particularly love your creative and thoughtful list of other opportunities to be connected.

    • Korinthia, you are exactly right about the causation and correlation and how this concept had just slide into the popularly accepted beliefs about parenting. I bought this hook, line and sinker without thinking about what really caused the benefits for a family meal. Parents who have dinner with their kids do lots of other things with their kids and that is what matters….thanks for your comments.

  15. We do go for the family dinners but mostly because it’s something we enjoy and it works best for our lives (right now – at my kids’ current ages). But I will say that almost all of my best conversations with my kids occur in the car!

  16. Carpool Goddess says:

    Most of our bonding seems to happen in the car, at meals and on vacation, but movie night, game night, and alone time with each child does wonders too. For us, the shared meals only enhances and deepens the bonds that already exist. I have friends who don’t sit down at breakfast with their kids because they’d rather have an early morning workout and have dinner with their kids only twice a week because of the parents need for socialization. Then they wonder why their kids, now all grown, have no interest eating or traveling with them.

  17. I totally get what you are laying down and I appreciate that you shared this. The research was faulty – to paraphrase you – it was not the dinner but the family. If having dinner together nightly worked to strengthen your family, then great. If having dinner together was a box to check off that you are a good family, then those dinners probably weren’t a huge tug to tighten those family ties.

    When we are all doing the best we can within the schedules we have to carve out meaningful times, then it doesn’t matter when they take place. It is much easier for “parenting experts” to say “Eat dinner together!” than to describe the ethereal essence of setting up the environment for sharing, tuning out the outside world, and tuning in to each other. I think YOU did a great job of describing that.

    Ellen

  18. What an insightful, practical, and honest piece. I suspect you have put words to what so many are feeling; “come hell or high water we make family dinner happen, and nothing is magically changing”.

    How confused, frustrated and even resentful these families must be feeling. They are trying to do what they are “supposed” to- the things that are in “the best interest of their kids”, because they love them.

    We parents are caught up in the rhetoric of impractical think tanks, often comprised of people who are trying to obtain funding, and establish themselves as an expert.

    I’m thankful for your article, and look forward to reading more.

  19. What an insightful, practical, and honest piece. I suspect you have put words to what so many are feeling; “come hell or high water we make family dinner happen, and nothing is magically changing”.

    How confused, frustrated and even resentful these families must be feeling. They are trying to do what they are “supposed” to- the things that are in “the best interest of their kids”, because they love them.

    We parents are caught up in the rhetoric of impractical think tanks, often comprised of people who are trying to obtain funding, and establish themselves as an expert.

    I’m thankful for your article, and look forward to reading more.

  20. Isn’t it amazing how we parents struggle to trust ourselves and our own instincts? Glad you are doing that now and sounds like you did a great job with your kids, despite what the experts told you! I know families that somehow pulled off the family dinner thing… know lots that just couldn’t or plain old didn’t want to or didn’t believe it fit their lifestyles. As you point out, quite well – how, when, and where parents establish a strong connection with their kids isn’t up to the experts. It’s up to them. It’s just important that it exists. Thanks Lisa and thanks for all the comments as well.

  21. We aim for dinner together as a family most nights, but honestly there are quite a few nights where we eat dinner in the living room while watching a movie. The kids love those nights, and we still get to talk together. I think I’m going to let myself feel a little bit less guilty it from now on!
    Stopping by from ShareFest; thanks for sharing!

  22. I totally agree with you about the action of having dinner NOT being the requirement that keeps our family close and keeps our children out of trouble. The concept of pulling family together for dinner was that the family would talk during that time about their day or their life or – to provide an opportunity that allows your children to share their lives and for you to share your wisdom (we hope ;) ).

    That said, in my own family, I found two other things that were far more helpful in creating that safe space that fostered communication:
    1) family game night where my kids were allowed to invite friends. (That friend piece isn’t required but it adds so much to the mix and really allows you to find out what your kids are thinking about and doing). These family game nights were an open forum to play and joke and even take long pauses while we discussed a comment that was made or an “inside joke” that was shared. Always, fun and lighthearted, we were connecting without it being or feeling forced (let’s face it, there’s nothing more uncomfortable than the silence that follows “soooo … how was your day?” Or the “fine,” or “good,” that follows with no further explanation).
    2) the second thing I did when my kids were growing up was to set aside at least fifteen minutes for each child every night for reading with them. While we have read countless books aloud to one another (great for improved scholastic performance), that wasn’t at all the real intent behind the nightly routine. I wanted each child to have my undivided attention for that time – a guaranteed time set aside where they would get my time. I can’t tell you how many time we DIDN’T read at all but discussed whatever was on their mind that day – sometimes a new video game they were excited about, or the new boy at school, or the teacher they really are frustrated by or someone who is being bullied at school – the list is as long as their are nights in a childhood … … and each of us cherish those times even now.
    Thank you for posting this – such a great message and a reminder to us all of the importance of QUALITY time with our children,

    • Heather I cannot thank you enough for posting your lovely story. Each family finds its own wonderful ways to connect and that is, as you so eloquently point out, what makes the difference. The friend piece you mention is an excellent point. We learn so much about our children when we see them in their context. I love your comment, thank you.

  23. Thank you Lisa for alleviating my extreme guilt for not being able to muster family dinners every night of the week. Most nights I consider it a minor miracle if I can get some form of dinner on the table and sit down with my 7-year-old by 7:30 pm. Bigger miracle if my husband, who travels for business most weeks, can join us. Nice to know that if we don’t manage it all the time, we are not screwing the kid up for good. I have an easier time at breakfast, honestly. While my husband isn’t usually around for breakfast, my 7-year-old and I play games while he eats. I also find that bedtime is when the kiddo feels most chatty. I know it’s a bedtime stalling tactic but that’s when I get to hear all so I don’t mind.

    • I loved it when they boys thought they were stalling and getting away with it and I was just loving every minute of it. Norine, it sounds so lovely.

  24. Love this! Totally want to try the hotel alone with each kid! I know when we go on vacation some of our best memories are from the 4 of us crammed into one hotel room bickering over the television, cuddling, pillow fights and everyone crammed in the bathroom together.

  25. So, I recently wrote a quick blog post on family dinners and why they are important (a study from Columbia related to substance abuse). I wrote that it is probably not causative but correlative. I think that the ability to make time for family dinner is important, exactly for the reasons you said it was not: the boys just jumping up after 10 minutes, your nagging them to finish their homework. That is not what family dinner is in my mind. “Eating together” does not equal “family dinner.” The family dinner of yore is perhaps impossible in these times of distractions and extra curricular activities and resume stuffing and eating late, but that is my goal. If my son doesn’t get a full scholarship for his soccer skills, well, then so be it. I guess I am probably being unrealistic, but… I’m going to try.

    • That is exactly what it is correlative. The research I read showed that parents who eat dinner with their kids are the same parents who monitor their children’s home work, are careful about where they go and what they do and are deeply involved in their lives. But we kill ourselves over dinner and it is not the source of good parenting.

  26. This is so great. We have three young kids and dinner is my most dreaded time of day!

  27. family dinners…easier when you’re a single mom because you can eat when everyone is hungry but still never like the waltons. i’m glad i did it though because as important as quality time is, the fracas is important too. it teaches tolerance and forgiveness and most important, that we’re all human-parents and children.

  28. I have found our most valuable time is at night in the kitchen. I am either doing dishes or prepping lunches or whatever. My oldest son (15) sits at the counter and does his homework, my younger one (13) normally hangs out in the living room, a few feet away and my husband stands around chatting. The has started happening naturally two or three times a week and we all love this time. It’s not a planned thing, but there is no stress and lots of sharing. It’s a perfect way to end a busy day!

Trackbacks

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