Winner, winner, family dinner: 3 tips for an uplifting time with your kids
By Jason Osmond
What time with your children do you value the most? Is it family vacations or day trips to the beach? Is it bedtime stories or drives to school? Or is it any time that you get to talk with them without distraction or interruption. In a survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, a large number of teens from around the nation were asked when they were most likely to speak with their parents. And one answer was always near the top: Dinner.
According to family therapist Anne Fishel, the most important thing you can do with your kids is to eat dinner with them. “In most industrialized countries, families don’t farm together, play musical instruments or stitch quilts on the porch,” she says. “So dinner is the most reliable way for families to connect and find out what’s going on with each other.” She adds, “Dinner may be the one time of the day when a parent and child can share a positive experience—a well-cooked meal, a joke, or a story—and these small moments can gain momentum to create stronger connections away from the table.”
So, in a world where parents and teens are so go-go-go, where we hardly have time to breathe around each other, let alone stop to eat a full meal with each other, how do we make sure dinner happens?
Here are three ways to make sure you’re getting enough table time in with your kids.
Create structure with recurring themes
If I told you that kids actually like structure, would you believe me? Having a routine becomes a big part of their development and, according to Kidspot, “Routines can strengthen relationships by focusing on time together.” Knowing that it’s “Meatloaf Monday,” “Taco Tuesday,” or “Sundae Sunday” can give a kid a sense of security. It also helps them learn about expectations and how to manage them. Put in the work, and your kids could come to look forward to dinner the same way they look forward to holidays or birthdays.
Plan it out, but keep it simple
People have to eat—otherwise, bad things can happen. But that does not mean you have to cook like you’re entertaining the Queen of England every day. Be proactive and pick recipes that don’t take you more than 30 minutes to prepare. A rice cooker or crockpot makes for a fantastic investment for busy families. Also, if you have older kids, have them toss a few things in the crockpot before they head off to school.
And again, don’t worry about it being a formal affair. Eating together in a parked car on the way to music lessons is just as good as eating together around a table. The important thing is that you’re together and talking with one another.
Keep it positive
This is not the time for yelling at your kid about their terrible grades or for not putting that stack of laundry away. There is a time and place for all of that, but it’s not during dinner. Please, don’t spoil this precious time with your list of things you need to fix. This is your time to put all that aside and enjoy your kids. Take inventory of everything going on in their lives and make an effort to be positive and supportive.
Start a conversation
We all know that when you ask your kids about school, the typical answer is “I don’t know” or “It was good.” And that’s it. So be sure to ask different questions, like “If you had a superpower what would it be?” or “If you could make any animal talk, which one would it be?” Going beyond “How was your day?” can get the conversation rolling.
One of my favorite ways of ramping up the conversation at the dinner table is by doing, what my family calls, the Family Highlight. And if you do it right, you can make someone’s day. All you do is simply pick someone, then you go around the table and each person says what they love about that person. When we do this, there are always a few laughs and a bunch of hugs. And sometimes it opens doors for more serious conversation that needs to take place away from the table. It’s a great way to warm hearts and increase communication.
Put on your game face
A great way to bolster your communication with your family at the dinner table is to make it fun. Games, especially, are great for kids and teens. And there are surprisingly a lot of fun games you can play together at dinner without getting too elaborate. One of my favorite games is called Telephone. I’m sure you know what that is, but just in case you don’t, here’s the breakdown: One person starts with a phrase, whispers it into the ear of the person sitting next to them, and then that person whispers the phrase into the person sitting next to them. This continues until it comes back to the originator. Thanks to human nature, most of the time the phrase gets pretty messed up and pretty hilarious. Or have a challenge for who has the best story of the day: the most outrageous, best example of kindness, even who’s day was the most rotten. Perhaps the person who wins gets out of dish duty.
In the end, it’s about being together as a family. Whatever strategy works for you and your kids, do it. Just make sure it happens. Dinner is, and will always be, one of the best opportunities you have to bond.
Jason is a writer, marketing strategist, and professional dad. He lives with his wife and three kids in Vineyard, UT.