This post is sponsored by Dream Dinners. All opinions are my own.
Sitting down each night for a home-cooked meal, together as a family: Seems like such a simple, easy thing to do. Yet how often do we actually do it?
As a kid, I routinely ate dinner with my mom, dad, and older brother at home. Meals and conversation with my immediate family, sitting around the kitchen table, felt like normal, everyday routine. Only now am I beginning to grasp how fortunate I was to grow up in such a stable, loving home, with this nightly tradition forming a solid foundation for my childhood.
Once I grew up, married, and started my own family, I started noticing that nightly family dinners were not the norm for everyone. At least, not anymore. Too much work to finish, activities to get to, chores to tackle, not to mention whiny kids and picky eaters. It often felt like grabbing a drive-through meal on the way from Point A and scarfing it down before reaching Point B was about all we could manage.
I also discovered that making quality family dinner time happen on the regular … wasn’t quite as simple and easy as I’d naively assumed. How did my parents pull it off all those years?
When our kids had outgrown bottles, baby food, and high chairs, my desire to make family mealtimes more consistent and meaningful in our household only increased. Eating dinner as a family had too many benefits for me to ignore. And yet … so. many. barriers.
It’s taken me a few years to identify all the barriers to quality dinner time, and to work out the right solutions for us to overcome them. But I did it! Now let me share with you what I’ve learned, including my best tips for eating together as a family.
Barriers to quality family dinner time
First, I’ll give you a quick rundown of what prevented my family-dinner dream from becoming a nightly reality:
- “Nothing good” to eat: We may have had food in the fridge and pantry. But did any of it go together to make a decent meal? Side note: Who was going to figure that out, and then make said meal?
- Sink and counter full of dirty dishes: Used plates, cups, bowls, and silverware would pile up, waiting for someone (Godot?) to put them in the dishwasher.
- Cluttered table: Our kitchen table served as the de facto temporary staging area for mail, homework, random toys, assorted dirty dishes, and whatever else no one wanted to deal with.
- Schedule conflicts: What time would we have dinner? If I had to stay at work late, or one of the kids had to be somewhere at 6, exactly when could we all sit down for a meal?
- Distractions: Who can compete for a child’s attention with a TV or mobile device—and win? And if we didn’t first clear all that clutter off the table, a random toy would do the job without a screen in sight.
- Power struggles: I don’t care to count the number of times we battled with the kids over which foods they ate, and how much. Let’s just say it’s a losing battle, every time.
- Mismatched expectations: When each parent believes the other is supposed to cook tonight, or when one kid assumes they can eat while they finish watching a movie … disappointment can quickly lead to mealtime misery.
7 tips for eating together as a family
We’ve come a long way as a family, and in recent years have figured out ways to eliminate or reduce most of those barriers. I’m happy to say we often (though not always) achieve my dream of sitting down together for a home-cooked meal. Here are some solutions that work well for us:
Prepping meals in advance
All of our dinner time meals, including sides and desserts, are prepped and ready to cook. One or two are usually thawed in the refrigerator, with the rest waiting in the freezer. I re-stock once a month (it takes about an hour to assemble 10-12 delicious family dinners) with the help of Dream Dinners. You can read all about it in my recent post here.
Dishes on the daily
We have a rule that each person must clear his or her place at the table before they’re excused. We also have designated roles for various household chores (including dishes). I am the designated dishwasher, and I make sure they’re put in the dishwasher or scrubbed by hand every day (at least once). That helps a lot.
Table set for “company”
Why do we only put out the nice dishes and cloth napkins when we’re having guests over? I decided that if we were prioritizing dinner as special family time, our setting should look and feel special, too.
That’s why I no longer allow the kitchen table to be a catch-all for paperwork and other stuff. Instead, our table is covered only with a real tablecloth (though we did use vinyl when the kids were littler and much messier). It’s always set with placemats, cloth napkins, and water glasses—in other words, ready for “company.” We also have a glass pitcher filled with water, chilling in the fridge, which the kids can pour into our glasses at mealtime.
For the centerpiece, we have a chalice that we made together as a family and our gratitude box full of mealtime graces and prayers. We take turns lighting the chalice at the beginning of the meal, and extinguishing it at the end, as well as reading a gratitude before we eat.
Schedule around mealtime
Once I decided eating dinner together as a family was important enough, I began scheduling around the dinner hour, rather than squeezing in the meal between everything else. Sometimes that means I take a break from my work, and return to it later that evening, or the kids have to decline some evening activities. I can’t say I’ve ever regretted giving our dinner time top billing.
No screens at dinner
I confess, I’m a pushover parent who lets her kids have way more screentime than they should. But I hold firm on the screen-free dinner policy. When soup’s on, the TV goes OFF. Devices go in a basket (preferably muted), away from the table. Conversations and connections happen much more freely without those addictive digital temptations.
Eat what you want, put the rest away
We stopped wasting our energy and ruining the mood by arguing over food choices. Our son is really, really picky, and will literally only eat about 10 foods. Our daughter will try many things, but she only likes about 60% of what she samples. We accept this. All we ask is they eat what they are willing, and put leftovers away so food doesn’t get wasted.
Communicate expectations clearly
As with just about any relationship or event involving more than just you, good communication makes all the difference in how things go. My husband and I check with each other about who’s making what for dinner each night (made considerably easier since meals are already prepped and ready to cook). We also remind the kids that dinner is family time, and we’re all part of a team. Slipping out to do what you want is not acceptable. We expect everyone to sit, eat, and respectfully participate in the discussion.
The gift of connecting
Our reward for all this hard work—meal planning, table setting, communicating, and so on—comes from the conversations we have as a family. We share about our days, of course, but beyond the daily recaps, we have the opportunity to express our feelings, hopes, and dreams to each other.
Sometimes, we solve a challenge together, like how do we decide what to do for family fun nights? Or we can simply express our gratitude for each other’s kindness, or pride in our accomplishments. When you hear your 7-year-old boy say, “I am just very thankful for this family, and you all are the best present I could have,” around Christmastime … well that, as my grandpa would say, “ain’t nothin’ but good.”