More than a Meal: The Extra Benefits of Family Dinners and How to Get Them

“Eat Better, Eat Together,” the USDA reminds us this month. The USDA is promoting family togetherness at mealtime because studies have shown that when families dine together, children are more likely to eat healthfully. And there’s more — children who eat with their families several nights a week tend to do better in school and have higher self-esteem, researchers say.

Sounds great, huh?  But, if you’re wondering how you can pull this off with your family’s hectic schedule, here are some tips:

Ease into it.

If your family rarely eats dinner together, start by aiming for two nights a week — the same two nights every week, so you and your kids won’t make other plans for those nights.

Post the menu and get your kids involved in planning it.

Most people like having a say in what they’re going to eat, but that doesn’t mean that your kids get to call all the shots. Otherwise, you’d probably be having fried chicken fingers and fries every night! You don’t need to aim for meals that would land you on Top Chef either. Convenience foods like grocery store rotisserie chickens are a great centerpiece for a tasty and nutritious dinner. And, to build anticipation for family dinner nights, get a small dry erase board and let your kids write out the menus.

Make the dinner table an electronics-free zone.

Teenagers are famous for being joined at the hip to their electronics, but adults can be just as guilty. Unless you’re a first responder or a healthcare worker on call, you should be able to get through a 45-minute meal without knowing what emails, texts, or phone calls you’ve gotten.  Also, be sure to turn off the TV and take your landline phone off the hook before sitting down to eat.

Manage your children’s after-school snacks.

Most kids are ravenous when they get home from school. A good, healthful snack like fresh fruit with some low-fat cheese, raw vegetables and dip, or natural nut butter on whole wheat bread, in age-appropriate portions, is the way to go. When kids have unlimited access to high-fat, high sodium microwavable snacks — like frozen pizza rolls, turnovers stuffed with sausage, or boneless chicken wings — it is likely that they will overeat and not be hungry for dinner.  The best approach is to avoid buying less-than-healthful snack foods in the first place.

Get creative: It doesn’t have to be dinner.

If you or your partner regularly works late, having dinner as a family may not be an option, but lunch on weekends or breakfast on weekdays could work. I knew a family who decided that if they couldn’t be together for dinner, they would have breakfast together each morning — and eat dinner food then. Even though they ate hearty “breakfasts” like lasagna, the grown-ups each lost 10 pounds. Now, there’s an added bonus of family togetherness!

For more tips on getting your family to the table, go to the USDA site.



Ellen StokesEllen Stokes, MS, RD, LD is an award-winning video producer, director, and writer in addition to being a registered dietitian. Ellen writes and creates videos about nutrition education, food safety, menu planning, grocery shopping, and healthful cooking on a budget. Ellen has worked with organizations and companies including the Partnership for Food Safety Education, the University of Georgia Food Science Department, and Golden Cuisine. Ellen formerly worked for CNN as a writer and producer and has taught food safety online for Georgia State University and she teaches nutrition to fledgling chefs at the Art Institute of Atlanta. Check her out on Twitter @EllenS_RD.