Homemade family dinners are often a luxury sacrificed in the name of time pressures, extra-curricular activities and conflicting schedules. It can be difficult to come together and make those quality connections that ultimately strengthen the family unit.
Harvard Medical School professor and family therapist Dr. Anne Fishel says research shows how children benefit from eating dinner together as a family at home: lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and eating disorders; increased self-esteem and resiliency; healthier eating habits, reduced obesity and stronger vocabulary skills as a result of dinnertime conversations. She’s also seen the benefits firsthand as a mother of two sons who are now young adults.
Dr. Fishel’s new book, Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids, aims to “stock pantries” with the tools they need to make dinnertime a truly valuable experience that everyone in the family can enjoy. It marries her own personal experiences as a clinical psychologist and mother with the learnings she’s acquired as co-founder of The Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit organization that aims to bring families in a community together to learn and share insights that will help them make home-cooked family dinners a regular occurrence.
If your family is struggling to connect regularly at the dinner table, read on – Dr. Fishel shares five tricks to making enjoyable family dinners a reality:
- Stay home. Eating out is exciting for children and a great way to make some really fun and valuable memories together as a family, but regularly eating out can actually take away from mealtime. Restaurant foods are not as nutritionally dense, and the noisy atmosphere and distractions can make conversation difficult. Furthermore, the ritual of the family dinner is reinforced when everyone is sitting around the dinner table eating the same dish.
- Play with your food. Dinnertime isn’t just about the end result! Inviting your children into the kitchen for meal preparation can provide the perfect opportunity to have fun and escape from the virtual world we live in. Food has texture, color, smell and taste, and all of these elements can be played with in the kitchen. Play games like a blindfolded smell test with different spices or guessing a secret ingredient. Making a family playlist of food-themed tunes can engage kids of all ages. When meal preparation is fun, picky eaters tend to be a little more adventurous at the table!
- Ask questions that spark conversation. You’ve probably already discovered that kids aren’t always the most forthcoming when asked, “How are you?” or “How was your day?”. A well-worded question has the ability to initiate deeper conversations about things that are important to your child – asking about a favorite memory, an activity they’d like to try or something they’re worried about can give amazing insight that can enhance your connection and everyday interactions. Just as importantly, regular dinners at home can create a sense of belonging, identity and connection to previous generations through stories about dinner rituals that were important to parents when they were children.
- Use food as a tool for talking about broader issues. Food is a powerful connector that all families and children can relate to, no matter how old or where in the world they live. Family dinners give parents an excellent opportunity to have age-appropriate conversations about topics like different cultures, hunger, the environment and food waste. Your child’s understanding and awareness of these issues may surprise you!
- Experiment & innovate. Once your child embraces the invitation to enter the kitchen and invest in the family meal, their desire to experiment with different tastes and foods will soar and you’ll likely end up with some creative dishes on your table! Don’t be afraid to try something new with your family and be flexible. Breakfast instead of dinner, or a homework snack with the family may work better for you on some occasions, and that’s okay.
Dr. Fishel knows that eating dinner together as a family can be a struggle, but she wants parents to know that it is doable and completely worth it. “It doesn’t have to be perfect,” she says. Food is a channel for play, story telling, and connecting with your kids, and in the end that quality time is what’s most important.
For more information about Dr. Fishel and her efforts to reinvent the family meal, visit The Family Dinner Project. Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids is available from AMACOM Books at most major retailers.