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Sitting down for a meal ­together is an ideal that many families hold dear — and for good reason. Research has shown that it provides prime opportunities for connecting and promoting healthy eating habits. But it can be challenging to balance family meals with different schedules, competing food preferences, and other contemporary distractions and disruptions.

Anne Fishel, PhD, suggests jettisoning the Norman Rockwell image of family meals with everyone seated at a big table for an hour and Mom serving perfect home-cooked dishes she’s been working on all afternoon. Fishel, cofounder of The Family Dinner Project and director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, says that the point of family meals is “the quality of connection when you gather.” Everything else is negotiable.

Stress Source

Finding a time when everyone can sit down together. “The No. 1 problem I hear is ‘We don’t have enough time’ or ‘Our schedules don’t mesh,’” Fishel says. “‘How can we possibly pull this off?’”

Deciding how often to do it. Does a commitment to eating together mean that families have to do so every night? Every night except weekends? Are families somehow cheating if they can only manage it on a couple of weeknights?

Kids’ resistance. Fishel says that many of the parents she talks with worry that younger kids would be too fidgety and that teens would prefer to eat in front of screens or with peers.

Finding the time and energy to make a family meal. Cooking takes a lot of awareness and a lot of work — especially when you’re cooking healthy meals. Even the prospect of undergoing all that effort on a regular basis can be dispiriting.

Cooking for picky family members or for kids who don’t want to eat. Picky kids can be a problem, Fishel notes, but so can a picky partner. And trying to cajole or persuade someone to eat who just doesn’t want to can cause all kinds of conflict at the table.

“You can naturally think, What’s the point of going to all the trouble cooking when not everybody’s going to eat what I’ve made?” she says. “And it’s difficult to see a child not eat — you worry if he or she is getting enough nutrition.”

Feeling guilty when it doesn’t work the way you’d hoped. Family meals carry expectations. When a real meal fails to live up to these ideals, you can feel that you’ve let down the family and yourself.

Success Strategies

1) Don’t worry about frequency. “I would much rather put the emphasis on the quality of the atmosphere at the dinner table, the feeling of connection and looking forward to gathering with your family, [and] having a chance to talk and feel that somebody’s listening to you,” Fishel says. “Maybe that only happens once a week, but the secret sauce is really what happens once the family gathers.”

A once-a-week get-together that produces that connection might encourage everyone to commit to eating together more often, too, she adds.

2) Know that it doesn’t have to be dinner. Given scheduling, it’s often not feasible for lunch to be a family gathering — but breakfast can work. Fishel acknowledges that there’s usually less time at breakfast and that conversations will be more about anticipating, rather than reviewing, the day. “But it’s easier to gather the family in the morning, and breakfast foods tend to be simpler.”

3) Realize that it doesn’t have to be everybody, or everybody at once. Although it’s great to corral the whole family, that isn’t always realistic, Fishel says. “If two people in the family are eating together, that constitutes a family dinner. One big family we worked with has a rule: No one eats alone. They make sure that the family eats in groups of two or three over the course of the evening. There’s a buffet meal laid out, and family members come in different configurations when they can.”

4) Simplify the cooking process. “I have several meals in my head that I can make in 10 minutes, and I make sure I always have those ingredients on hand,” Fishel says. “You might make a big batch of a stew or soup on the weekend and then freeze it. And you can take shortcuts, like buying a rotisserie chicken — who says everything has to be made from scratch? — and serving it with salad and precut vegetables.”

You can make breakfast for dinner, too, she suggests. “It’s a much lighter lift to make scrambled eggs or serve yogurt and fruit and some avocado toast.”

5) Realize that most teens actually like to connect with their parents over a meal. “When they’re asked, ‘What’s the most reliable time of the day to talk to your parents?’ dinner is No. 1,” says Fishel. And though it may come as a surprise, “about 80 percent of teens say they’d rather eat with their parents than with peers or alone.”

6) Don’t stress about kids’ eating. Fishel advises parents not to worry too much about a kid’s reaction to any particular meal; consider instead their nourishment over the course of a week.

“It’s best not to say, ‘Please just take one more bite,’” she says. “Those kinds of comments bring a lot of tension to the table.” If a child really doesn’t like the food, it’s OK for them to have a yogurt or make themselves a peanut butter and jelly sandwich this time.

7) Gently introduce new foods and make the meals customizable. Another way to accommodate picky eaters is to introduce a new food alongside a familiar one — Brussels sprouts with mac and cheese, for example. Then you can serve Brussels sprouts on a regular basis until they, too, become familiar.

“If it keeps showing up, they might think, How bad could it be?” says Fishel. “Or you can serve one simple central dish, like a chicken rice soup, and then each person can customize it with mushrooms, garlic, red pepper, or whatever.”

8) Have fun! Fishel highly recommends using food-related fun as a motivator for getting buy-in from family mem­bers, and as a way to increase feelings of closeness — “playing with food” is totally OK by her.

“You could make a meal all of one color, or make rainbow meals, prompting kids to think about the different colors they want to have on the plate,” she says. “You can put salad ingredients out and have each family member pick what they want and make a little artwork out of the ingredients — then eat the art. You can have a picnic in the middle of the winter on the living-room floor, or just sit in seats that aren’t your customary seats.”

9) Let go of expectations. “A family dinner doesn’t have to be perfect,” Fishel adds. “It doesn’t have to plumb the meaning of life. It’s enough to sit together for a few minutes, enjoy each other’s company, and talk, with everybody feeling that what they have to say is worth listening to.”

The Family Dinner Project website has a wealth of suggestions on all these topics and more, including recipes and ideas for food-related family fun.  


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This article originally appeared as “Recipe for a Successful Family Meal” in the May/June 2023 issue of Experience Life.

Jon Spayde

Jon Spayde is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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