Bringing Back the Family Dinner Tradition

Joan Goodchild

The benefits of dining together regularly as a family are thoroughly backed by research. Studies find that families who dine together save money. The shared experience also encourages kids make healthier food choices and stress levels are lower among all members of the families who eat as a unit.

Despite the evidence touting the many benefits of family dinners, making time to sit down together is not as common for families these days as it used to be. As a child myself, I recall a strict six o’clock sit down each evening with my own family to enjoy food and conversation. A recent discussion about this with my former neighbor, Kathy Oliver, now a grandmother living in Goffstown, NH, brought up similar good memories.

“My husband and I both come from families in which dinner time was family time and a time to share with each other - and with whichever friends, neighbors or extended family were within distance of (Mom) yelling ‘Dinner’s ready!’” Oliver reminisced.

But the tradition of eating together is no longer as common as the days Oliver remembers. A survey from food manufacturing giant Conagra recently found that 40 percent of American families eat dinner together only three or fewer times a week, with 10 percent never eating dinner together at all.

Those who do manage to find an hour to carve out for dinner together agree it is precious time spent.

“Our family has dinner together at least four nights per week,” said Doris Buckley, a Plaistow, NH mom of three children. “This time is essential for our family to reconnect and share our lives together during the busy school and work week. This time helps us communicate with one another and engage in meaningful conversation.”

The diminishing trend of families eating together is one The Family Dinner Project wants to change. A nonprofit organization currently operating from the offices of Project Zero at Harvard University, their mission is to give families the tools to make family dining happen more often.

“Through families, we understand what gets in the way of family dinners, and we offer programs and practical tips -- many from families themselves -- to help families get the dinners they want,” said Lynn Barendsen, Executive Director of The Family Dinner Project. “For us, the key is to forget about ‘perfect’ and focus on modest goals and small steps.”

The Family Dinner Project was initially created by Shelly London, a retired senior corporate executive who developed several social impact initiatives while serving as a fellow in Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, a program for senior leaders who want to go from their primary career to a life of service. She brought together men and women from a variety of personal and professional backgrounds with a shared knowledge of the power of family dinners, said Barendsen.

“Research links regular family meals with the kinds of behaviors parents want for their children: healthier eating habits, of course, but also reduction of high-risk teenage behaviors such as drug use and teen pregnancy, lower rates of depression and anxiety, stronger resilience and self-esteem, and even higher grade-point averages,” she noted. “Talking with kids at dinner is even more effective at building vocabulary than reading aloud.”

The Family Dinner Project offers a website with many take-aways families can use to get started with more nights of eating together weekly. Tools include conversation starters to use with kids of all ages, games that can be played during the time together, expert advice on solving dinnertime challenges, ideas for fun with food prep, easy recipes ideas, and ways to use what you’ve got so that the age-old “there’s nothing to eat” complaint won’t get in the way of creating a meal for togetherness.

The website notes that while researchers find that families who eat dinner together five nights a week reap great benefits, but there is no magic number, nor is dinner inherently preferable to other meals. If your family finds breakfast or weekend lunches easier meals for a gathering, then these could also “count.” From nutrition to quality time together, it is a win for all involved, said Barendsen.

“Families tell us that they come to The Family Dinner Project for the food, but they stay for the conversation and fun -- the family bonding.”

According to The Family Dinner Project, “a well-worded question is the quickest way to connect after a long day.” They offer a page of conversation starters with the hope the queries will “spark a deeper conversation about things that matter to you.” Here’s a peek at some of their “starters,” broken down by age.

Ages 2-7

• If you joined the circus, what would your circus act be?

• Name five people you love most in the world and why  (Animals OK, too.)

• Tell me about two things you felt grateful for today.

Ages 8-13

• Make up three silly new traditions for our family. What would they be?

• What’s the best vacation you ever had? Or the best you can imagine?

• If you were a teacher and could teach your students anything, what would you teach them?

Ages 14+

• What’s the best year of your life so far? Explain.

• How is this year at school different than last year?

• What political freedoms have you witnessed come to fruition in your lifetime?

Dinnertime Conversation Starters