My children were born 19 months apart. For about a year after my second arrived, I’m not sure anyone ate dinner, let alone together. A lot of cereal was consumed at strange hours, but nothing that resembled a family meal.
It mattered to me, as it was one of the deep, consistent rituals of my own childhood. And yet, the survival habits I developed during those early months and years of parenting — often handing my toddler son an iPad before I nursed my daughter, eating with my husband after we put the kids to bed, in front of the TV because we were too tired to make conversation — started to become the norm.
Clawing back from that to what we have now — an early dinner where at least one parent is present and electronic devices are off — with our 5- and 6-year-old most nights was a raggedy business, and is still a work in progress. Especially because, although there’s lots of information about what to cook for family dinner, there’s much less about that final, more ephemeral ingredient: how to make it happen.
For us, storytelling, silliness, gratitude and a monumental (but sometimes failed) effort not to nag our kids to eat their food have powered a family dinner renaissance. And although every family is different, here are common themes that contribute to success.
Dinner should be a respite, not a re-litigation of the day. As Jenny Rosenstrach, a cookbook writer and founding editor of the website Dinner: A Love Story explains, the dinner table needs to feel like a sanctuary — no nagging, no judgment, no phones.
“At dinner, you should feel like you’re your best self, that you can be silly, that no friend is going to make fun of you,” she says.
To keep it that way, don’t go over a to-do list, don’t ask your partner if they picked up the dry cleaning and don’t interrogate your kids about their homework. Most of all — and this is the really hard part — don’t make what your kids are or are not eating a focal point. A child who is picking at food rightfully drives parents crazy. But nothing casts a chill over a conversation quite like faux-cheery urgings to eat “one more bite” and threats about withholding dessert.
“Try not to cajole or bribe kids to eat their healthy food,” says Anne K. Fishel, a clinical psychologist and director of the Family Dinner Project. “It would be one thing if it worked, but it doesn’t. The research is pretty clear. When you say, ‘Eat your peas and then you can have your vanilla cream,’ you make the ice cream more desirable and the peas less so.”
Instead, model your own enjoyment of the food. Make children stakeholders in the meal as much as possible, by allowing them to choose items at the grocery store, helping with cooking or clearing the table.
And if all else fails, remember that pediatricians say that children’s nutrition matters on a weekly basis, but that one meal is not going to make or break it.
Stories are powerful. A family meal is not the only place for storytelling, but it’s one of the most reliable ones.
“It’s a ritual we can plan on, a place to come together and connect that gives kids and adults ballast,” Fishel says.
When I was a child, we had stories we told over and over. There was the time my father ran out of the house in the middle of the night without a stitch of clothing on because he thought a fox was after our puppies. Or the time a Canada goose chased my brother and me into a bush. These stories were part of the fabric of our family.
Some of the most powerful stories you can tell are about your own childhood.
“Parents who share stories about their childhood, particularly about overcoming things — the more kids hear those stories, the more they feel a part of something bigger and resiliency increases,” Rosenstrach says, referring to the groundbreaking research on family history and narratives from the Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life and documented in “The Secrets of Happy Families,” by Bruce Feiler. The prompt she still uses with her teenage daughters is, “Did I ever tell you the story?”
Fishel says that kids who know more family stories grow up with higher self esteem, and suffer less from depression and anxiety.
“It also allows children to see that their parents weren’t always so competent, that they made mistakes and did silly things,” she says. For instance, my kids love the story about a goose chasing me when I was a child, probably because my brother and I did something ridiculous when we shot toy arrows at a goose, then acted surprised when it chased us.
Kids also enjoy stories about themselves. “Young kids are very egocentric,” Fishel says. “Their favorite stories are ones that feature themselves or events they experienced with their parents.” She suggests harnessing that self-focus by having grandparents or parents talk about stories from when they were the same age as the kids.
Animals are also fascinating territory: “Kids identify with other small, dependent creatures,” Fishel says. “Stories about animals are irresistible to them, especially animals your family had as pets.”
Even if it doesn’t come easily, there are ways to build in storytelling. My family and I play “the rose, the thorn and the bud”— talking about the best part of the day (the rose), the most challenging part (the thorn) and what we’re looking forward to tomorrow (the bud).
Create small rituals. Routines tend to sound daunting, involving elaborate home cooking or a beautifully set table. But a sense of ritual comes from consistency and expectation, not magazine-worthy perfection. It can be as simple as Taco Tuesday or Sunday pancakes. For our family, the most consistent dinner ritual is a 4:30 p.m. Friday meal at a pizza parlor.
Rosenstrach suggests that if you can’t get your act together during the week when everyone’s busy, make Sunday dinner a special tradition.
“You can all go shopping together, come up with the idea together, cook together,” she says. After all, “you can live off the high of a good Sunday dinner for days.” Not only is it historically a family dinner night, but when the clock is not ticking, you can enjoy it, and the more you enjoy family dinner, the more likely you are to do it again.
It’s also a time, especially if you have extended family members or friends over, when you can add games to make it a bit more special than a school-night meal. Fishel recommends Two Truths and a Tall Tale, where you tell two truths and a fib, and everyone has to guess the fib. Or have people write down answers to questions before dinner (i.e. “What character in children’s literature do you most identify with?” “What was your favorite trip?”), put them in a hat, and then at the table pull out the answers and try to guess who wrote them.
Crack jokes and express gratitude. At least once a week, go around the table and have everyone say what they are grateful for. Our kids’ responses are sometimes ridiculous (“I’m grateful for potty words”) and often heartfelt (“I’m grateful for time together”). In many religions and cultures, meals are where people express thankfulness for the food and for bringing family members and friends together. And like everything else with kids, a weekly or daily expression of gratitude builds a muscle: The more you do it, the more it will spill out into other parts of your children’s lives.
Lastly, tell jokes. We trot out the same one every week and it never gets old — a knock-knock joke where the response to “mustache who?” is “I mustache you a question but I’ll shave it for later.” It absolutely slays. The interrupting cow knock-knock joke can be tailored to your kids’ favorite animals (in my daughter’s case, a lion). The reason jokes are so effective is that silliness, openness, storytelling and fun are the ingredients that will keep your kids coming back to the table. Don’t equate good conversation with seriousness or formality — your kids need a chance during the day to be silly and laugh, and frankly, you do, too.
It might even be a time to lean into those dad jokes.