So it's not home-cooked, served at 6:00 p.m. sharp, or even possible seven nights a week. Today's families are bucking tradition and finding new ways to bond over the evening meal.

By Erin Zammett Ruddy
Updated September 12, 2019
Priscilla Gragg
Priscilla Gragg

Like it or not, eating dinner with your kids may be the single most important thing you do as a parent. Research shows that children who sit for regular family meals are less likely to have behavioral problems, and that the ritual may also protect against future eating disorders, substance abuse, obesity, and depression. But in this era of packed schedules and working moms and dads, communal dining can feel close to impossible. Whether you’ve got a picky kid, are intimidated by your oven, or have zero time to cook (or eat!), we’re here to revamp your routine so you can serve delicious suppers and get your crew to linger at the table longer. Pull up a chair!

Family Dinner Challenges and Solutions

You work, then pick up from day care (or shuttle the kids to afternoon activities), and there’s no time to cook. And you’re all starving as soon as you get home.

Remind yourself that you’ve just got to make it through 15 or 20 minutes of hangry whining. While you’re boiling the pasta water, appease your kids with vegetables. Parents contributing editor Sally Kuzemchak, R.D., author of The 101 Healthiest Foods for Kids, has a “veggies only” rule the hour before dinner. “The kids can pick something out of the produce drawer or even eat the veggie that I’m serving, but there’s no other snacking.” Molly Janik Gulati, a mom of two in Summit, New Jersey, has a “crunch contest.” She fills a plate with raw vegetables and challenges her kids to see who can make the louder crunch when they bite into them. Or they can decide which veggie (peppers, carrots, cukes) sounds the loudest. Plate them up in the morning before work.

Another way to keep kids busy and out of the kitchen is to play restaurant. Have them make paper menus (with drawings or written descriptions, depending on their age) and place cards. They can name the restaurant and set the table if they’re old enough. Then let them take everyone’s order. (There’s one thing on the menu, folks—hope you like it!)

To make cooking less stressful, plan for the craziness. Think ahead about which weeknights will be hectic so you can decide when to make something simple, when to get take-out, and when to sit down as a family for homemade fare, says Caroline Campion, a mother of two and coauthor of The Dinner Plan.

Do as much dinner prep over the weekend as you can. “Cook six chicken breasts in the multicooker and shred them up for quesadillas, BBQ chicken sandwiches, or to toss in a quick soup using canned broth,” says Kuzemchak. “And brown taco meat ahead of time to use for last-minute tacos.” When her children were younger, she was in a freezer-meal group in which friends shared extra portions of whatever they cooked so each of them always had something to pull out in a pinch.

And don’t discount breakfast for dinner. “Scrambled eggs, toast, and something green is a great meal—and you can have it on the table in ten minutes flat,” says Jenna Helwig, Parents’ food director and author of Baby-Led Feeding. “Dinner doesn’t have to be fancy. I always keep a good jarred pasta sauce around, too, because that can save the day.” And hey, she has a culinary degree!

Either you or your partner—or both of you—gets home from work on the late side, and the kids are hungry earlier.

You don’t need everyone together at every meal to make it count, says Anne Fishel, Ph.D., director and cofounder of The Family Dinner Project, an initiative that provides families with online resources to get them to the table. “All you need is one adult and one child to call it a family dinner, and there’s nothing wrong with making it a moveable feast where you sit twice.” Meredith Shanley, a mother of two from Baltimore, sits with her kids while they eat, and then when her husband gets home, the kids sit again—bathed and ready for bed—and snack on fruit while she and her husband eat. When Meg Cevey, a mother of three in San Diego, works late, her stay-at-home husband eats with the kids and saves her a plate.

“I’m a big advocate of feeding kids early, when they’re hungry,” says Kuzemchak. “They’re more receptive to what you’re serving, and if you let them get too hungry, they’ll pass that window and go into meltdown mode. They can have a snack before bed if they’re hungry again later.” Campion suggests putting some “staggered meals” in your repertoire. “These are easy meals that can be served at room temperature or reheated as diners trickle in.” Her favorites: tortilla soup with lots of DIY toppings, Asian chicken salad, and slow-cooker pulled pork.

Still, aiming for one or two all-hands-on-deck meals a week is a solid goal. “Even one dinner a week is better than none,” says Dr. Fishel, coauthor of Eat, Laugh, Talk: The Family Dinner Playbook. And here’s the best news: All the research shows that breakfast counts too. “In many ways breakfast is better than dinner because it takes place when the kids are rested, as opposed to in the evening when they arrive at the table on the verge of mental breakdowns,” says Dan Pashman, a father of two and host of the James Beard Award–winning podcast The Sporkful. Your family meal can even be an intentional snack that you sit and have together later in the evening, pushing back from computers and homework, adds Dr. Fishel. “You want to incorporate food, fun, and conversation about things that matter, but the meal itself is going to look different for different families.”

You’re not a great cook and end up getting take-out or fixing the same few things all the time.

You’re in luck: Kids thrive on routine. Having theme nights is a great way to simplify. “Say pasta every Monday, tacos every Tuesday, and always build in a clean-out-the-fridge night when everyone may get something different,”says Kuzemchak. Grocery shopping is also easier when you can stop in for your weekly go-tos instead of, say, crème fraîche and fresh thyme.

That said, if serving the same old dishes on repeat feels, well, repetitive, kick your weekly staples up a notch. “I love using all the taco components as the table runner,” says Mary Giuliani, a celebrity caterer and author of Tiny Hot Dogs: A Memoir in Small Bites. “Set the entire meal on the center of the table, with all the sides in little bowls. I call it a snacktivity—an interactive way to serve food that also serves as décor! That way you can build your tacos without leaving the table, and it also looks pretty.”

Another idea: Turn a boring potato side into the star of a baked-potato bar. “Set it up buffet-style with the potatoes first, followed by bowls of butter, cheese, bacon, sour cream, tomatoes, and chives,” says Teri Kindelmann, a mother of two in Pittsburgh. “You can even turn it into the whole meal with chili or chopped chicken on top.”

Got leftovers? “Don’t think of themas the same dish you ate before—think of them as ingredients that can be combined in new ways to make different things,” says Pashman. “Veggies can be tossed with pasta, or yesterday’s steak can be sliced up for today’s fajitas or salad—the possibilities are endless.”

Go ahead and steal Helwig’s hack: Use frozen fish sticks for fish tacos, or heat up frozen Asian dumplings to serve with rice and roasted broccoli. Pashman always keeps frozen vegetables on hand for hectic nights. “They’re just as healthy as fresh veggies, they don’t go bad, and you can defrost them in seconds,” he says. “Throw some corn or peas on the side of anything, even a slice of pizza, and you’re killing it on the parenting front. ”Fortunately, the benefits of family dinner are exactly the same whether you spend four hours cooking or you churn something out in ten minutes.

Priscilla Gragg
Priscilla Gragg

Your baby makes a huge mess. Your preschooler keeps dropping his fork and asking for water. You can barely sit down for a second.

First, know this: You’re not doomed to be eating at 5 p.m. in a puddle of spilled milk for the rest of your adult life. As with all parenting challenges, this is a stage and it will pass. “Of course, dinner five years down the road won’t look the same as when your kids are in their high chairs throwing chicken on the floor,” says Dr. Fishel. (It gets way better—hang in there.) In the meantime, continue to lay the groundwork for the future. “Research shows that it’s good for parents of young kids to develop a family-dinner practice early on,” explains Dr. Fishel. “It’s a commitment to your family that becomes part of your identity.”

To make those minutes in the early years more enjoyable, bring everything to the table you might need—extra napkins, all the silverware in a caddy, cups, and a pitcher for refills. Or just eat close to those refills. “My kids are 6, 4, and 2, so we eat almost all of our family meals around our kitchen island, where everything’s in reach,” says Cevey. “I can grab a spare fork for the baby without putting down my own fork. Someday we’ll make it to the dining room, but for now we’re happy keeping it streamlined, and it makes cleanup easier too.”

As for the chicken on the floor, try putting down a plastic mat. “It could even be a trash bag or a sheet—you don’t have to buy a special product,” says Helwig. “And invest in a simple handheld vacuum—that and a dog!”

Eating with your young kids also lets them see you enjoying a range of foods. “Children are more open to trying new things before the age of 3, so sitting at the table with them and eating a wide variety of foods with gusto is important,” says Dr. Fishel. It’s good for their brain too. A study by Harvard literacy researchers found that family-dinner conversations typically include rare words that preschoolers won’t be exposed to in picture books. Kids may not understand the meaning of, say, turmoil or renovate, but when they hear you say them in context at the table, these words sink in, says Dr. Fishel. And kids who know more words and have bigger vocabularies learn to read earlier and more easily than kids who have smaller vocabularies. Magnificent!

You wish your kids weren’t picky and would eat whatever you make. But it’s easier to let them eat kid food and feed yourself later.

If you do nothing else, make this your mealtime mantra: You’re in charge of what you serve and when you serve it, and your children are in charge of whether they eat it and how much they eat. “This is dietitian Ellen Satur’s “division of responsibility” concept, and it’s truly game-changing for parents,” says Kuzemchak. “What happens after you set that food on the table is not your job.”

Shifting to this mindset will be scary at first because you’ll think your kids will starve. But you’ve got to play the long game and think about what habits you want to establish for the future. “When kids think the table is a place where they’re going to get scolded, they won’t want to be there, and they won’t want to eat,” says Kuzemchak. “When you take that pressure off, they may not eat the five bites of chicken you’d have ordered them to eat, but you’re telling your kids that you trust them with their food intake, and that’s the best thing you can do.”

This means no counting bites, no mention of The Clean Plate Club, no saying, “This is so good for you, just try it.” Instead, eat it yourself and mention how delicious it is. And definitely don’t say, “If you eat all your broccoli, you can have a brownie for dessert.” Food should never be used as a reward or punishment, a notion backed up by both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “That sends an unhealthy message that broccoli is yucky and you have to choke it down in order to get the good stuff,” says Kuzemchak.

Also avoid thinking about whether you’re serving kid food or adult food—and serve only one meal a night as often as you can. “Kids have no motivation to branch out if they know you’ll defer to chicken nuggets,” says Kuzemchak. That said, there should always be foods on the table your child likes. If you know he hates black bean chili, don’t put a bowl in front of him and say, “This is what you’re eating.” Instead, point to the cornbread and his favorite vegetable and set aside some beans for him without the spice. And every once in awhile, your family can eat hot dogs or have macaroni and cheese on the side.

Oh, but you still want your kids to eat something substantive? Cut down on snacking so they come to the table hungry, and try some other parents’ picky-eater solutions. “Each of my girls gets her own ramekin of ranch dressing, and I let them dip whatever they want in it—veggies, chicken, even fish!” says Kim Gilroy, a wellness coach at Kim Gilroy Inside Out, and a mother of three. Amanda Cullinan, a mother of three in Summerfield, North Carolina, swears by bacon bits. “I cook extra strips on Sunday and keep them chopped up in the fridge, then sprinkle them on whatever—soup, avocado toast, eggs.” Sometimes coming up with fun names for these tweaks is the trick. “I let my girls use ‘superwoman sauce,’ ”says Zelana Montminy, Psy.D., a mother of two in Los Angeles. “It’s just olive oil mixed with salt, but my kids love to dip carrot sticks or lettuce leaves in it or drizzle it on their vegetables.”

Your kids jump out of their seats after ten minutes or want to bring their devices to the table, but you’re determined to have actual conversations. How can you make dinner more engaging and fun?

The average family dinner in the United States lasts about 22 minutes , but you may not get that long with young kids.“Instead of insisting on some arbitrary amount of time, it’s better to have a fine five to ten minutes with very little conflict and build from that,” saysDr. Fishel. And keep in mind that kids under the age of 5 are more likely to sit for ten to 15 minutes if there’s little cajoling or talk about the food.

You can also harness the energy of restless little ones by putting them to work, suggests Dr. Fishel: “Oh, I see you’re up again. Can you please bring the milk or the napkins and then come sit down?” Making kids stakeholders in family dinner helps them want to beat the table.

What should you talk about? Sign up for Q4KIDZ and you’ll get a text everyday with a fun, thought-provoking question to ask at the dinner table like, “If you could be invisible for a week, what would you do?” And play “Rose, thorn, bud”: Go around the table and have everyone share the best part of their day (rose), the worst (thorn), and something they’re looking forward to (bud). You can also demonstrate to your kids that it’s NBD for you to go without your phone at dinner. “My husband and I have a ‘no devices at the table’ rule because as our kids get older, it’s even more important for them to see us detached from our phones,” says actress Tiffani Thiessen, who cowrote (with her husband, Brady Smith, an illustrator) You’re Missing It! about a dad who spends too much time on his phone. (The idea came to her while she was prepping dinner one night and saw him outside playing with their son—and his phone.) “We all need reminders that we shouldn’t miss these special moments with our kids.”

If you’ve already gotten into the habit of allowing devices at the table or of eating with the TV on, be direct about your desire to make a change rather than trying to go cold turkey, then model the behavior, suggests Julie Kientz, Ph.D., director of the Computing for Healthy Living and Learning Lab, at the University of Washington. “You might say, ‘I’m putting my phone away because I feel like it’s limiting our ability to have a conversation.’” Then ask the kids to brainstorm about what you can do at dinner instead so they feel like they have a say. You might start with shutting off particular devices (phone, then TV) or going tech-free on certain days of the week. While your kids are still little, Dr. Kientz recommends having a “no toys at the table” rule. “In many ways, phones are considered toys, so if kids know from toddlerhood that they don’t bring their stuff to the table, they’ll be more receptive to having no devices there when they get older.”

That’s not to say there’s no place for technology at any meal. “The goal is family connectedness, and while technology often seems like an enemy of that, it can also be a source,” says Dr. Kientz. Maybe you decide to keep the TV on in the background for the championship game, or Friday is “pizza and a movie” night—something that the kids feel is special and part of your routine. And if you have to pick up your device (because hey, it happens), then narrate what you’re doing. “If you just grab the phone, your kids will think you are ignoring them and breaking your agreement, but if you say, ‘I’m just checking to see what time Mommy is coming home,’ you’re good,” says Dr. Kientz.

You’re on a breastfeeding elimination diet (no dairy!), your husband is doing keto, and your kids just want plain pasta.Again. Isn’t the whole point of family dinner to share the same meal?

Get together as a family and decide on five dishes everyone will eat, regardless of any restrictions. They may not be your favorites, but at least you’ll have some go-to meals. It’s easy to get sucked into making everyone different dishes, and in addition to the message that it sends toy our children (did you hear about the kid who dropped out of college because his mom wasn’t there to make sure there weren’t green things on his chicken?), it’s also really tiring for the cook.

Another option is to make meals that are easily deconstructed. For example, you can serve the pasta plain, the sauce and meatballs in bowls on the side, a salad, and a vegetable. “Everyone is eating the same things even if it’s not the exact same ingredients in every forkful,” says Helwig. You can also make easy swaps for various needs—zoodles for pasta, roasted sweet potato halves in lieu of buns for Sloppy Joes. But if the adult restrictions are self-imposed, don’t make a big show of what you’re not eating. “Just skip the carbs quietly—you want your child to feel like all foods are okay, no foods are bad, and we enjoy food,” Helwig suggests.

However, you can also give yourself a pass once in a while. “I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve cooked three dinners,” says Sara Buckley, of the @nottheworstmom Instagram. “The family-dinner bar is set pretty high, and when we can’t meet it, we’re so hard on ourselves. I’ve learned that my kids really don’t care. They like good food, but they’d also eat cereal for dinner.”

Of course, there’s no family dinner without food, but the main benefits come from what happens after you bring the food to the table. Says Dr. Fishel, “When kids have the opportunity to talk and have a good time, to confide in their parents and feel accepted—that’s the secret sauce of dinner.”

Priscilla Gragg

Erin Zammett Ruddy is a Parents contributing editor who lives on Long Island with her three macaroni and cheese-obsessed kids. Follow her on Instagram @erinzruddy.

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