There’s no phrase more stress-inducing for parents than, “Experts say ... ” Here it comes, you think — another research study to show me all the things I’m doing wrong. And if ever studies have ever been used to make parents miserable, it’s those about the importance of eating dinner together as a family. The media often has summarized the studies this way: If you aren’t eating dinner together nightly, your kids are doomed to lives of misery and mayhem.
But is it really so simple? We talked to experts to find out. One of the most robust bodies of research on family meals among adolescents has been conducted by Project EAT (Eating and Activity over Time). Its principal investigator is Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, professor and division head of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota. The author of “I’m, Like, SO Fat!”: Helping Your Teen Make Healthy Choices about Eating and Exercise in a Weight-Obsessed World, she’s a strong proponent of what her research has shown to be a “protective effect” for families who eat together. “I personally think there’s something magical when people break bread and share their days with one another,” she told HuffPost.
But she also acknowledged that some parents are aiming for an ideal of a “perfect mealtime” that just may not be achievable. And if that quest for perfection makes everyone stressed, then the protective effect may be diminished. “The atmosphere at the table is important,” she said. “If there’s fighting, or if there are comments about the amount of food being eaten — or not eaten — then that’s not doing anyone any good.”
“Our society puts far too much on mothers’ shoulders, while offering little support. The pressure to do family dinner ‘right’ can feel defeating and can even make families less likely to eat together.”
Katja Rowell is a medical doctor and responsive feeding specialist who’s watched the family dinner research take on a life of its own in the media. “Over the years, it seems to have focused on a mother-shaming angle,” she said. “The message has become, ‘You must cook and eat family dinner with everyone, every time.’ Our society puts far too much on mothers’ shoulders, while offering little support. The pressure to do family dinner ‘right’ can feel defeating and can even make families less likely to eat together.”
Some parents are saying no to family dinner.
While some parents have embraced that nightly home-cooked dinner with self-righteous zeal, others are taking a second look and deciding to cut themselves some slack. Instead of insisting on mandatory group meals, they’re pushing away from the table and writing about it in articles with titles like 5 Great Reasons Not to Have Family Dinner Every Night and True Life: We Don’t Eat Family Dinner.
One of those parents is journalist Louise Gleeson, whose story, We Gave Up On Nightly Family Dinners Together — And I Feel Zero Guilt, chronicled how she and her husband, parents of four children born within the span of seven years, decided to hop off the dinnertime merry-go-round and into routines that worked better for them and their kids.
“I had read those ‘experts say’ articles, and I felt like I’d need to grow three arms to make it all happen,” Gleeson told HuffPost. “I felt pressure to create an ideal family dinner, but I was miserable and stressed-out by the time we all sat down. The positive vibe I had wanted my kids to feel was gone. No one was having fun.”
“I realized I’d fallen into the trap of thinking that dinner could only be one way, with everyone together at the same time, eating the exact same food.” That realization, she said, led her to adopt a new mindset: “Family dinner is not a construct, it’s a feeling.” These days, with her kids ranging in age from 11 to 19, dinner might be happening at different times for different family members, and it’s OK. “If a teenager comes home later, after others have eaten, there’s a plate of food set aside, and one of us can sit down with a cup of tea and have some one-on-one time with that kid,” she said.
“It’s the bonding time, that 15 minutes of conversation, that’s what really matters. It’s not having that bonding at the dinner table.”
“At our house, the table is a gathering place, not a jail. We don’t need to subscribe to some formula an expert is giving us, so we’ve created our own practices and traditions. We have a big meal together on Sunday, for example, and the kids rotate among who is responsible for dessert. They put a lot of thought and care into it, and that contributes to their community mindset and the way we support each other.”
“There should be grace and flexibility.”
Leah B. Samler, a psychologist and adjunct faculty member at Pepperdine University, has seen the negative blowback from some of those mandatory meals.
“I’ve worked with clients who have experienced a lot of shame around being forced to eat certain foods, or certain amounts of food,” she told HuffPost. She brought up that often-cited “gold standard” of everyone not only being together at the same time, but everyone eating the exact same meal, too. “I understand that parents shouldn’t be short-order cooks to prepare different foods for different family members, but when you have kids who are neurodivergent or neuroatypical, or who have food sensitivities or allergies, sometimes it’s just not practical. And forcing anyone to eat something doesn’t allow them to develop the skill of intuitive eating. It’s important to take shame out of the equation at mealtime.
“In this day and age, that nightly family dinner often is not realistic,” she added, encouraging the idea of possible rarer, but more relaxed, meals. “Families can have a Friday night pizza or a weekend meal to which others outside the immediate family are invited. That can still help build the skills of paying attention, sharing tasks, preparing food and setting aside structured time to connect.”
Rowell agreed. “Sometimes a special meal in front of a movie, or a picnic at the park, is what everyone in the family needs that night,” she said. “Maybe two of the siblings can eat right after soccer with one parent, while a third child eats later when the other parent gets home. There should be grace and flexibility.”
Like Samler, she rejected the notion of parents being “food cops.” “I’ve seen so many people who feel like being a good parent means they have to control what and how much their child eats. This food cop role normalizes conflict at mealtimes and leads to whines, bribes, rewards, negotiations and tears. Mealtimes should be about connection first.”
“It’s not about the dinner, it’s about the family.”
In his book, “The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play,” author Bruce Feiler stressed the importance of what Gleeson referred to as “that positive vibe.” After realizing that family dinner “just doesn’t work” for many people, he dug deeper into research of recorded conversation during mealtimes. What he found was there are only about 10 minutes of actual dinnertime conversation, and he suggested that families who make that time up in other ways can experience the same benefit. “It’s not about the dinner, it’s about the family,” he said. “Many of the benefits of family mealtime can be enjoyed without sitting down together every night.”
“Family dinner is not a construct, it’s a feeling.”
In an interview, he said, “The research shows you can take that 10 or 15 minutes of conversation, move it to any time of the day, and still have the same benefit. So if you can have family dinner, fantastic, bravo. But if you can’t — if mom works late or a kid has sports practice — you can meet for family breakfast if that’s better in your schedule. You can meet at 8:30 p.m. after the kids have done some homework and everybody is home from work. You can have even one meal on the weekends and it can still have a positive effect. The point is it’s the family time that’s important. It’s the bonding time, that 15 minutes of conversation, that’s what really matters. It’s not having that bonding at the dinner table.”
Focus on being present, table or not.
“Insisting on this nightly gathering around the dining room table also fails to acknowledge the issue of privilege,” Samler added. “Even having a table where everyone can gather, let alone gather at the same time, is not possible for everyone.”
Laura Bellows is an associate professor in the division of nutritional science at Cornell University. “A lot of these norms and ideals come from white middle class culture,” she told HuffPost. “Families seek that ‘three-legged stool’ of timing, food and togetherness, but, especially for low-income families, that can be harder to achieve. Sometimes, if they’re all together, someone has to eat on the couch, someone else at a countertop.” In her work, she said, she’s found that “being present is the most important thing. When it’s only about the food, it becomes something else. It really should be about conversation, interaction and sharing of emotions, whatever that looks like.”
“Recognize that along with the rhythms of your family, and times when work or parenting are particularly intense, some things may give,” Rowell said. “And then it changes. Think about ways to come back to what is important when you can. I’ve seen families stuck in absolute battles, dreading mealtimes. Start with a focus on enjoying the time at the table and then seeing what creative ways you can come up with to eat together.”
“My advice is to look at where you’re at now and shoot for a gradual change,” Neumark-Sztainer said. “Make it easy, and make it fit your lifestyle. I’m a big believer in not giving a parents a bad rap, because we’re all doing the best we can. But if a regular meal together could help prevent problems down the road, why not try it?”