Family Dinners: 5 Ways to Make Them Happen Even With Homework and After School Activities

We know, we know. For years now we’ve heard all about the studies that show that having dinner together as a family every night is one of the best and most positive parenting things you can do. It has all sorts of benefits, from building better family relationships, making better food choices, raising self-esteem in children, to even having an impact on their grades and whether or not they will engage in at risk behaviors.

And for the most part, when kids are in elementary school and middle school, making weeknight family dinners happen is pretty doable. But then comes high school, and just when we need the family time more than ever (and yearn to connect with your eye rolling young adults because TEEN ANGST IS REAL),  gathering everyone together at the same time every evening is darn near impossible.

There is just too much going on in the lives of modern teenagers to make being at home, seated around a table nightly by 6 p.m. a reality, let alone a remote possibility. But there are a few things you can do to kinda, sorta make it happen. Now, it won’t always be 6 p.m., and it won’t always be a perfectly produced pot roast, but it WILL be time spent eating with them.

cooking eggs
Having dinner with family is a good thing. (Twenty20 @NickBulanovv)

How you can make family meal-time happen, even with high schoolers:

1. Dinner together can be anywhere

First thing you need to let go of is the notion dinner together happens only at home and only at the dinner table. Busy families on the go are just that, ON THE GO, so if you end up scarfing down tacos in the car in the parking lot of football practice, well you are still together putting food in your mouth, and really that’s all that matters.

Release your perfect family dinner table guilt and take the moments you do have together eating, and make them quasi dinner table moments. It’s your attitude, and not the location, that makes a family dinner a FAMILY dinner.

2. Make it family breakfast together instead

When your weeknights turn into full blown chaos and it’s simply impossible to get everyone together, flip family dinner into family breakfast. Now stay with me here, because yes, I know high school starts at dawn, and “family breakfast” means you will be wide awake and flipping pancakes while the roosters crow, but this is a terrific alternative to family dinner.

It takes some sacrifice (and lots of coffee) on your part to rise and shine and make a hot breakfast, but I promise teens will rush to a table filled with bacon and syrup with eagerness you may not have seen before. At first, early breakfasts will just be sleepy and quiet but give it time, because before you know it, the chatter will start and your early morning kitchen will be a full blown diner.

3.  You may need to eat in shifts

With large families of teens come large variances in each kid’s schedule, so you may find yourself eating three dinners a night. Embrace it! If getting time with the kids means sitting down to eat dinner with one kid at 4 p.m., another kid at 6 p.m., and another at 9 p.m., just do it. Make each of them feel as special as the next, and even take turns with your spouse on who does what shift. As crazy as it seems, this may be your new normal for long periods of high school, so make the best of it.

4.  Weekend family dinners

If both of the above are a no go, you’re only other option is to make a big deal out of weekend family dinners.  More time on weekends means you can make it almost a family event, and have the teens help out with menu planning and cooking.You may even consider cooking more fancy or complex dishes than you’re used to. Spaghetti and meatballs will get inhaled in 5 minutes and then the kids will split, but a salad course, soup, appetizer, main, and dessert will keep them at the table longer, thus making up for lack of weeknight dinner moments. You may even start a Sunday roast chicken (or whatever food you all agree on) dinner tradition, and will find that the kids eventually really look forward to it, and treat it as sacred family time.

5. You gotta prep, prep, prep, and maybe become a “pot” head

Once you decide that family dinners are going to happen no matter when or where, you’ve got to resign yourself to the fact there is some major prepping and planning involved. There is no getting around it, but there are plenty of books and websites out there with step-by-step weekly and monthly menu plans, so even if you’re the most clueless cook on earth, help is out there. One new book to take a look at is Eat, Laugh, Talk: The Family Dinner Playbook that offers 52 weeks of recipes, conversation starters and games. 

One of the more popular kitchen gadgets busy families use is the crock pot, but as of late, use of electric pressure cookers like the “Instant Pot” have gained serious popularity. Personally, I love my “pot,” and because it’s able to turn frozen meat into an edible dinner in under an hour, it’s ideal for non-planners and last minute cooks. Again, books and websites abound full of Instant Pot recipes and how to’s, and the pothead community is full of busy families, so you’ll be in good company.

In the big picture, having high schoolers and the dinner disruptions their lives create is really only a small part of their childhood, so don’t beat yourself up over the fact that your family dinners have become few and far between.

Make it happen what you’re able to make happen, and focus on the quality of each moment you’re able to share a meal together, not the quantity.

About Melissa Fenton

Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian at Pasco-Hernando State College. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. Find her on Facebook 
and on twitter at @melissarunsaway

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