How (and Why) to Revive Family Dinners

While there are a million different things to be thankful for, the one thing on Thanksgiving that brought me more joy than all the rest was watching my family sit around our table and talk. We laughed, drank coffee, and listened to the wisdom and memories of the older folk. It was a beautiful time that is too often taken for granted.

This got me thinking about how often breaking bread with our loved ones is put off for convenience. Instead of sitting around a table, we find ourselves watching TV and having pizza on the couch. Sure, eating pizza on the couch can be a bonding moment—during the Super Bowl or a series finale that the entire family is invested in—but more often than not, the choice to stay away from the dinner table is made with little to no thought, other than it is easier than dragging out real dishes and having a homemade meal.

With that in mind, here are some things families can do to make the most out of dinnertime:

1. Keep the kitchen/dining room table clean. Let’s be honest, almost everyone is guilty of using the dinner table as a placeholder for something that doesn’t belong there. Find somewhere else to stack the mail and keys, and keep the table clear of clutter. If there’s no room for the mashed potatoes, then it is highly likely that each member of the family will find a different place to eat. This could also mean that your silverware disappears into the abyss of a teenager’s bedroom.

2. Plan your meals. To steal a phrase from my college Spanish professor, planning your meals can be like catching two monkeys with one banana. It is important to plan your meals in advance, because it not only will save you money when you go to purchase groceries, but it also will prompt you to think about your week. It’s pretty hard to cook a meal when the kids have a basketball game, so thinking about your obligations ahead of time will help ensure that you are making time for family meals on the nights when you are able.

3. Set an expectation, and stick to it. I can’t tell you how many times I have suggested to my wife that we forgo our planned meals for a dinner out. Luckily for me, my wife is pretty good about keeping us on schedule. If we have purchased food for five home-cooked meals, then we eat five home-cooked meals. The important thing is not the type of meal—we might have a bowl of canned soup and a grilled cheese sandwich—but that when we do cook, we sit down at the table and eat together.

4. Put away the phones/electronics. There’s no quicker way to tell a person sitting across from you that you are not invested in what they have to say than by pulling out a cell phone. Make a hard rule that phones are not allowed at the dinner table. It is important that parents model the appropriate behavior for their kids by physically putting their phones on silent in a location away from the dinner table. The same goes for any other electronics. There is no need for a Nintendo Switch at the dinner table, nor should a Kindle or iPad become a tool to keep a little one quiet while having dinner. If this would be new rule for your family, it will likely be uncomfortable for a little while. No worries, because with discomfort comes opportunity. If it is uncomfortable, speak about it. Your family is likely to share some good laughs once someone mentions how weird it feels to be staring at each other over a bowl of macaroni.

5. Get everyone involved in the process. Start by letting everyone have some input into planning the meals. If the kids want hot dogs and Doritos for dinner on Thursday, then have hot dogs and Doritos. This is also a great time to teach young people about the cost of food and keeping to a budget. If everyone wants steak and potatoes on Friday, then perhaps it will be canned soup and Stouffer’s lasagna for the rest of the week.

Eating off real plates is also important, because it’s good for the environment and also helps give everyone ownership of the family meal. Look for ways to get everyone involved. Someone can set the table, another can carry in the food, and everyone can roll up their sleeves when it’s time to clean the dishes.

I would also suggest that kids watch their parents cook. In my late twenties, I had a couple of roommates who had never made a meal that was more complex than turning a hot dog on a grill. I couldn’t believe it. It took months before they were able to make anything worth eating, but I would like to think that my showing them some simple things, such as how to marinate a chicken breast, has greatly increased their confidence in creating meals for their families.

6. Make gratitude a part of every meal. This could be a simple “thank you” to everyone for their help in putting food on the table, a specific thanks for the best cooked pork chop the family has had in years, or a quick prayer the family shares as a part of their religious practices. No matter what form it takes, making time to be grateful for the food and people around the dinner table will keep the family focused on what matters most: each other.

Matt Raper is the middle school principal at Ivy Academy in Chattanooga, Tenn.

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