It seems like ages ago, but there was a time when “family dinner” wasn’t a given for every family, thanks to sports practices, school events, work meetings, and active social lives.
For better or for worse, those hectic weeknights will return. But in the meantime, you’re probably eating dinner as a family (and at home) more than you ever have before.
Though it can all feel a little Groundhog Day (at least around here!), those meals help us feel connected in a socially distanced world. There’s no doubt that more time together around the table is a silver lining right now.
Why family meals matter
Regular family dinners have always been one of the best healthy habits, and there’s a large body of research (as in THOUSANDS of studies) that actually proves the perks for children. Compared to kids who don’t eat dinner regularly with their families, they…
Are less likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol
Eat more fruits and vegetables
Have a lower risk for eating disorders and depression
Do better in school
Studies (like this one) also show that families who eat together feel more connected and have better communication and problem solving–which can help us weather uncertainties, manage difficult moments of life, and celebrate little joys together.
Conversation at the table is a big reason that eating together makes us feel more connected. In honor of September being National Family Meals Month, I wanted to share a way you can make all those family dinners a little more meaningful.
Because while there are dinner-table questions that just fall flat (how many times do I need to ask “How was school?” or “How was your day?” to remember those queries go nowhere?), there are others that lead to truly memorable meals.
I reached out to my terrific Real Mom Nutrition Facebook Community for their these-actually-work conversation starters and added a handful from our own family table. You can also get a printable version of these conversation cards by tapping the pink button below.
16 conversation starters for kids
What was the best thing about your day?
What’s something hard that happened today?
What was your favorite vacation and why?
What’s one memory you have from (fill in the year or grade)?
If you had to change your first name, what would you pick and why?
What’s something that made you feel proud recently?
What’s the scariest FUN thing you’ve ever done?
Give a compliment to the person on your right.
What’s your favorite holiday and why?
Which friend do you trust the most? What makes a friend trustworthy?
If you could only eat 3 foods for the rest of your life, what would they be?
What’s the worst “Dad Joke” you’ve ever heard?
What’s your dream vacation?
Would you rather have the power to see into the past or future and why?
What are 3 words you’d use to describe our family?
What is your idea of a perfect day?
What if family dinner is chaos?
If you’re in the thick of it with small children, I get it. I remember when dinner felt like a three-ring circus, when I barely managed to eat more than three warm bites of food, much less strike up memorable conversations.
If that’s where you are right now, SIT TIGHT. I promise it gets better (here’s how it did for my family). The tunnel may be full of tantrums, tears, and food-throwing right now, but there’s light at the end of it!
In the meantime, remember that simply gathering at the table together is meaningful, and you’re establishing a healthy family habit that benefits everyone at your (very loud, sometimes crazy) dinner table.
What if my picky eaters make family dinner stressful?
You’re not alone! I hear from parents all the time who say they dread family dinner because of this. While I can’t wave a wand and make your child devour everything you cook, there are some steps you can take to feel less stressed at the table. Here are a few changes to make:
Make one meal for the family (but be sure there’s something on the table your child likes, even if it’s just rice or fruit).
Serve family-style, using either serving bowls or placing pots right on the table, and let your kids serve themselves.
Don’t require a certain number of bites; let your kids decide when they’ve had enough.
What if my kid won’t eat dinner at all?
Rest assured that it’s very common for young kids to fizzle-out come dinnertime. They’re little, and dinner is at the end of a long day.
When our son went on a dinner strike as a toddler (eating a lick of ketchup or single bite of food for the meal), I felt beyond frustrated. But we eventually developed a strategy that eased our worries and nourished him when he was hungry: we set aside his plate and offered it later. Sounds simple enough, but it worked for us! He still sat with us at the meal, but it was the bridge we needed to get to the stage when he was hungry and receptive at dinnertime. (Learn more about this strategy here: Coming to Peace with a Not-So-Perfect Dinnertime.)
About The Family Meals Movement
FMI began a campaign five years ago to encourage families to eat together more often. Their original aim was to have families pledge to eat one more meal together, at home, per week.
Today, families are obviously eating together (and at home) a lot more. But now there are new obstacles–like concerns about food safety and food insecurity. I’ve also heard from a lot of you that you’re simply worn out by cooking and bored with your stable of recipes. At FMI’s Staying Strong with Family Meals.you’ll find recipes, ingredient hacks, meal planning strategies, links to food assistance programs, to help and inspire you.
More help for family dinner
A new FMI survey found that 40% of American adults say they’re cooking more and 23% are planning more meals in advance. If that’s you (or you wish it were!), here are some ideas for you:
Need more family meals? Here are two of my family’s favorite easy meals:
Need some kid-friendly veggies? September is also National Fruit & Veggie Month. Try these with your crew:
Need help planning your meals? Grab my free Meal Planning Worksheet.
Hi! I’m Sally, a dietitian-mom.
I believe that EVERY mom can feel successful and confident about feeding her kids, lose the stress, and finally enjoy mealtime again.
Sign up for my weekly emails for support and inspiration (plus dinner ideas!) and I’ll send you 16 game-changing tips for feeding your kids–even the super-duper picky ones.