How to Make Family Mealtimes Meaningful Points of Connection in Your Day

Sitting down to eat together as a family can sometimes be a challenge with busy schedules, but the benefits can be significant, especially for kids and teens. Studies have shown that children who have regular family mealtimes are less likely to become depressed, get pregnant early, or use drugs. In addition, this quality time has been linked to more self-esteem, higher grade-point averages, increased vocabulary, and a sense of belonging. 

If you’re looking for ways to make mealtimes more meaningful points of connection in your family members’ days, consider these tips.

Make mealtimes tech-free.

Although eating a pizza while gathered around the TV for family movie night is certainly a great way to bond and have fun, it doesn’t hold the same benefits as when you dine at a table and talk. Insist that family dinner is a tech-free time by asking everyone to leave their phones, tablets or computers in another room during the meal. 

Give everyone the chance to talk.

There might be days when your teen doesn’t feel like sharing or your 8-year-old had such a busy day that they talk nonstop, but it’s important to make an effort to include everyone in the conversation. Make a habit of going around the table and taking turns sharing highlights from everyone’s day—even if they choose to “pass” sometimes. This will not only help every member feel like an important part of the family, but also prevent any one person from monopolizing the conversation.

Looking for insightful questions to get more than just “fine” as an answer when you ask your kids about their day? Here are some ideas >>

Focus on gratitude.

It can be beneficial to have each person share one thing before or during the meal that they’re grateful for. One 2022 study found that practicing gratitude with kids can increase desired emotions, like joy and contentment, while decreasing anxiety and depression. Try not to judge the responses, even if your teen says “video games” or your 6-year-old says “the cat” every night for the first week. They may come around eventually and surprise you by dropping a genuine gem like, “Mom’s spaghetti.” 

Read More: How to Raise Grateful Kids >>

Share the cooking responsibilities.

Most older kids and teenagers are capable of making a basic dinner for the family meal, but even younger kids can get involved as a helper. Depending on the child’s age, they may be able to wash and peel vegetables, set the table, or mix ingredients. By helping your child or teen feel valued and independent, they may boost their resilience and confidence while developing a love for cooking.

Try a mealtime game. 

A quick Google search will offer up plenty of conversation starters, but you may also want to consider a (verbal) game to play at dinner. There are countless conversation cards designed to get your family thinking, talking, sharing, and planning (not to mention laughing!), including some that work for a variety of ages. Curious about the types of questions? Here are a few examples:

  • “What would be a really good flavor of toothpaste?”
  • “What would you like to do on a future family vacation?”
  • “What do children know more about than adults?”
  • “If we had a special family day together, what would you want to do?”

Don’t force food. 

Nothing disrupts a family meal faster than parents arguing over whether to force a child or teen to eat everything on their plate. Give children a sense of agency by allowing them to choose whether they eat a particular food or not. Research has shown that childhood eating experiences can affect a person’s relationship with food as an adult and pressuring a child to eat is associated with increased picky eating, lower food intake, and lower weight. In fact, one 2015 study found that although picky eating alone was not associated with disordered eating patterns in young adulthood, parental pressure during mealtimes was. 

Focus on variety. 

Not everyone will have the same taste in food, but it’s not realistic, practical, or cost-effective to prepare individual meals for each member of the family. Luckily, there’s no rule that says you can only offer a main dish with a traditional side dish and salad. Instead, consider offering smaller portions of a wider variety of food. For example, a plate of carrot sticks, cubed cheese, hummus, naan bread, and grapes—in addition to the chicken casserole—can offer additional sources of nutrients for picky eaters or those who don’t eat meat. 

Don’t believe the hype that your family dinner has to look a certain way. Think of the meal as a time to consume nutrients, connect with your family, and build fun, loving memories—not pose for the family holiday card. Besides, the more everyone enjoys themselves, the easier it will be to get them all to sit down together for years to come!

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