These days it can seem next to impossible to have a regular family dinner. Most families are constantly running between sports, dance, piano, church, PTA meetings, work events, family obligations, and everything else. We’re lucky if we get one night a week where everyone in our family actually sits down together and gets to enjoy a home-cooked meal without having to rush off somewhere afterward.
Yet all of the research shows that kids who have regular family dinners:
– have better vocabulary
– read earlier
– get better grades
– eat healthier (even later as adults)
– have a lower rate of teen risk behaviors
– have lower rates of depression
– have a more positive view of the future
– have less stress
– have better relationships with their parents
Of course, that’s only true if these dinners actually include interpersonal connection. Those statistics don’t hold if the parents spend dinner yelling at each other or scolding the kids, or if everyone just watches TV or stares at their phones the whole time.[i]
It doesn’t matter whether your family dinner is a four-course meal you lovingly prepared yourself or takeout you grabbed on the way home. What makes a family dinner special isn’t what you are eating, it’s how you are interacting. Whether you’re trying to institute a regular family dinner or you’ve been doing it for years and just want to try something different, these six family dinner ideas should get you going
Turn Off Screens. This may seem obvious, but research shows that only about half of American families have a “no screens at the dinner table” rule.[ii] And it’s not just kids on tablets, lots of parents are spending dinner time distracted by their phones. So much so that Time magazine said that parents need to start worrying more about their own screen time than their kids. A survey of families dining at fast food restaurants showed that almost 75% included parents who were so engrossed in their phones, they were basically ignoring their kids. They even saw one mom kick her child’s foot under the table and another swat her son’s hand away when they tried to pull her attention away from her phone. Family dinner really isn’t family dinner if we’re staring at a screen. So put away the screens and talk to the real life, three-dimensional people right in front of you!
Tip: Some families have a “Device Drop” basket near the dinner table where everyone places their phones, tablets, etc. so they won’t be tempted to look at them during dinner. Download our “Device Drop” printable to make your own basket.
Ask Good Questions. Sometimes it can be hard to get the conversation going. A basic “how was your day?” doesn’t always result in meaningful or fun conversation, but “if you could make the laws, what is one law you would definitely make?” could lead to some great discussion. And “what is your funniest face?” is sure to get some laughs! If you really want to get your kids talking, consider using a list of great discussion starter questions like this one from blogger Our Three Peas or this one from Anxious Toddlers. You can even make it more fun by printing the questions off, cutting them into slips and putting them in a conversation jar at the center of the table. One great question you can ask every day is “Where did you see God today?” to help them learn to look for God in everything that happens to and around them.
Play Table Games. There are tons of games you can play at the dinner table, and I don’t mean having a food fight.
– For “Who Am I?”, write the names of famous people on stickers or post-it notes. Each person puts a sticker on their forehead without looking at it. Then take turns trying to guess what name is on your own forehead by asking questions of the other people at the table.
– “And then…” is a group storytelling game. One person starts a story with one sentence. Each person adds a sentence to the story around the table until the story is finished.
– In “Speech Club” someone gives the person to their right a topic and that person has to give a “speech” about it for 30 seconds. Topics and speeches can be serious or silly. Then they get to give a topic to the person on their right.
– In “Going on a Picnic,” each person takes turns going around saying what they would bring on the picnic, but they have to say what each person before them has said first. A player loses when they can’t remember one of the items or puts them in the wrong order.
– Or you can always play the age-old classic “20 Questions.”
The kids may get so excited about your dinner table games, that they help you scour the internet for more games or even make one up themselves!
Celebrate Small Victories. Our family has a red “You Are Special” plate that dear friends gave us as a wedding present before we even had kids. Ours was homemade by our friends, but you can buy them from the Red Plate Store. It was an early American tradition that whenever someone in the family had something special to celebrate, no matter how big or small, they were served dinner on a red plate. You could save the red plate for big successes, but it could also be something as simple as, “You moved up a reading level at school” or “I’ve seen you being really kind to your sister lately” or “You got the part in the school play.” You may not want to use the plate every day, to keep it special. But it would be a shame to only break it out a few times a year on birthdays. Using the plate regularly will teach your kids to celebrate even the small victories in life.
Switch Up Locations. One year for Valentine’s Day, we had construction work being done in our kitchen and dining room, so we decided to just set up a special picnic dinner on the living room floor. The kids loved it so much that they insist that we do a living room picnic every Valentine’s Day. We weren’t even trying to start a fun new tradition, it just happened. What creative places can you have your family dinner? A backyard picnic under the stars? Tailgating out of the back of the minivan in the driveway? Sometimes just switching up where you eat your family dinner can create an experience your kids will never forget. We’re making their childhood memories here. Let’s make ‘em memorable.
Invite Other “Family” to Join. Christian families are called to be missional—to reach out and bless others with what we have been given. Imagine how you can use your family dinner time not just to bond with your kids, but to bless someone else? What if you invited an older widow from your church to join your family dinner as a surrogate grandma? Or a single young man or woman who doesn’t have family nearby? What if you invited a non-Christian family over to share the experience with you? What if you were even bold enough to invite some of the homeless from your local rescue mission over to your home for a family dinner (of course with the caveat of making sure it is safe to do so)? How would making them feel welcome in your home, as part of your family, make a difference in their lives?
You could probably come up with tons more ideas on how to make your family dinner special. Hopefully, this list just inspired you to think of more that would work well for your family. Whatever you choose to do for your family time, the most important thing is to be together. Even if work schedules or soccer schedules are so crazy that it can’t be family dinner every night, find some regular time to be together as a family, actually interacting with one another, not just sitting in front of a screen. You will never regret the time you spend bonding with your kids, and they will never forget it.
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[i] Anne Fishel, “The Most Important Thing You Can Do With Your Kids? Eat Dinner with Them” The Washington Post, Jan 12, 2015
[ii] Marie Haaland, “Parents Only Spend 24 More Minutes with their Kids than their Phones” New York Post, Oct 21, 2019