More Parents Are Rejecting Nightly Family Dinners — Some Experts Say That's OK

Studies say regular "together time" over meals is good for kids. But what if it’s just not working for your family?
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The family dinner norm comes from middle class culture, said Laura Bellows, an associate professor in the division of nutritional science at Cornell University. “Families seek that ‘three-legged stool’ of timing, food and togetherness, but, especially for low-income families, that can be harder to achieve," she said.

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.”

- Dr. Katja Rowell

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.”

- Bruce Feiler, author

“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.”

- Louise Gleeson, journalist

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.”

What now?

“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?”

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Before You Go

Everything You Need For The Perfect Halloween Dinner Party
Matte black and copper wine glasses(01 of 41)
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These spellbinding goblets are just the thing for creating your spookiest table ever.

Get a set of four from Williams Sonoma for $59.95. Or check out a set of four gold and matte black wine glasses at Amazon for $44.99.
(credit: Williams Sonoma)
Some beautiful bat glassware(02 of 41)
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Serve your favorite Halloween cocktails in these handblown double old-fashioned glasses covered in a cloud of bats.

Get it from Crate & Barrel for $9.95.
(credit: Crate & Barrel)
Midnight-black plates(03 of 41)
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They'll bring the right touch of darkness to your Halloween gathering, but there's a bonus: These stoneware plates from Target's Jungalow collab will be chic year-round.

Get a set of four dinner plates for $24 or four salad bowls or salad plates for $20. (Check out this 16-piece dinnerware set, too.)
(credit: Target)
Or vintage Halloween paper plates(04 of 41)
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Doing casual? Delight your family or guests with these adorable disposable plates in a retro pattern.

Get a pack of 8 from Maisonette or from Meri Meri for $10.
(credit: Maisonette)
Cauldrons for serving, of course(05 of 41)
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Offer up cider, soup or snacks in these iron-black cauldron bowls from Crate & Barrel.

Get the small cauldron for $5.95 or the large cauldron for $29.95.
(credit: Crate & Barrel)
And a mist maker for your caldron(06 of 41)
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And what's a cauldron full of beverages without a spooky mist? This little machine is all you need to create that eerie cloud (well, this and some water).

Get it from Sur La Table for $30.
(credit: Sur La Table)
A '70s horror film garland(07 of 41)
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Drape a door, set up a photo backdrop or use it as a table runner: This garland of classic horror characters will be a scream no matter what.

Get one from Etsy for $14.39+ (comes in two sizes).
(credit: Etsy)
Or an eyeball balloon garland(08 of 41)
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Forty watching eyeballs will spook your guests in the best possible way. This pack comes with everything you need, including the balloons, cord, glue dots and instructions for assembly.

Get it from Maisonette or Meri Meri for $26.
(credit: Meri Meri)
A scary skull candle (or three)(09 of 41)
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Stumped when it comes to table decoration? We'd grab a trio of these scary skull candles and group them together to form a centerpiece.

Get it from Crate & Barrel for $19.95.
(credit: Crate & Barrel)
Spooky salad plates(10 of 41)
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These glazed porcelain plates are dishwasher safe and will last for years of Halloweens to come.

Get a set of four from Crate & Barrel for $24.95.
(credit: Crate & Barrel)
A set of 8 vintage Halloween cups(11 of 41)
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Kids and adults alike will be delighted to drink from these paper cups.

Get a set of 8 from Maisonette or from Meri Meri for $9.50.
(credit: Maisonette)
Some incredible skeleton glassware(12 of 41)
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Look at those bone fingers! These stemless wine glasses are part of Pottery Barn's skeleton drinkware collection, which also includes Champagne flutes, highballs, a punch bowl and more.

Get it for $24.50.
(credit: Pottery Barn)
Or a pack of plastic skeleton hand goblets(13 of 41)
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You won't want to give up the ghost if you drop one of these goblets -- they're plastic. Sold in a box of 24, they come in three Halloween colors. (Also available in stemless and flute styles.)

Get it from Dollar Tree for $24 per case.
(credit: Dollar Tree)
A set of creepy bottle labels(14 of 41)
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Don't serve wine. Use these wickedly clever stickers to serve "blood," "poison" and "spider venom" instead.

Get it from Amazon for $8.99.
(credit: Amazon)
Vintage Halloween cake toppers(15 of 41)
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Stick these in any dessert and suddenly, it's a very special Halloween dessert that everyone will ooh and ahh over.

Buy a set of four from Maisonette or from Meri Meri for $9.
(credit: Maisonette)
A spiderweb tablecloth(16 of 41)
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Morticia Addams would approve. And it's machine washable, so it can be a staple of your Halloween decor for years.

Get it from Amazon for $9.98.
(credit: Amazon)
Gummy eyeballs in an ice tray(17 of 41)
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Prep these with tonic water before you plop them in a drink, and they'll even glow in the dark. (Just be sure you don't serve them to any small humans at risk of choking.)

Get it from Target for $4.99.
(credit: Target)
The perfect stove-to-table pumpkin(18 of 41)
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Dish up soups, casseroles, sides and more in this enameled cast iron pumpkin Dutch oven from Staub, which can go straight from the oven or stove to the tabletop.

Get it in white ($199.95) or burnt orange ($229.99) from Bed Bath & Beyond or from Amazon.
(credit: Williams Sonoma)
Or a more affordable Dutch oven in black(19 of 41)
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The interior is enameled cast iron, and the semi-matte finish is as dark as the night beyond the campfire when you hear a scary noise.

Get it from Walmart for $62.03.
(credit: Walmart)
Dapper animal Halloween salad plates(20 of 41)
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Need even more creatures in your decor? These "dapper animal" Halloween plates from West Elm will do the trick. The treat? They're dishwasher-safe porcelain.

Get them for $12.50 each.
(credit: West Elm)
Or keep it sweet and disposable(21 of 41)
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These adorable pastel paper plates will squeeze any little heart -- even those of the undead.

Get a set of 8 from Maisonette for $9.
(credit: Maisonette)
Candy corn placemats(22 of 41)
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You can never have too much candy at Halloween, even if it's placemats.

Get a set of 12 from Maisonette for $34.
(credit: Maisonette)
Or clever cork placemats in black and white(23 of 41)
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All you have to do is wipe them clean and they'll last until next year, too. Bonus: There's a matching cotton runner.

Get it from Target for $5.
(credit: Target)
Sculptural black candles(24 of 41)
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Let these sandalwood-scented pillars burn on your tabletop and the black wax will form a unique lace-like pattern we can't help but find a bit sinister.

Get it from Amazon for $25.97+ (comes in three sizes).
(credit: Amazon)
Or flameless LED candles with spiders or bats(25 of 41)
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They lack the danger posed by open flames, but these tapers are still a little bit scary thanks to their Halloween design. The candles are made from real wax, but take two AA batteries each.

Get them in spiderweb or bat design from World Market for $12.99.
(credit: World Market)
Adorable ghost votives(26 of 41)
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If you normally use votives on your tabletop, replace them with these highly-rated spectral cuties. They come either unscented or with your choice of 7 seasonal scents including pumpkin pie spice and autumn woods.

Get a set of six from Etsy for $14.10.
(credit: Etsy)
A 48-pack of frightful paper cups(27 of 41)
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If you're hosting an army of ghosts and goblins -- or you just love a good deal -- grab this pack of four dozen 12 ounce paper cups in pumpkin, bat and Frankenstein designs.

Get it from Amazon for $13.99.
(credit: Amazon)
Glasses straight from a mad scientist's lab(28 of 41)
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Get your monster-maker on and serve up the best potions in these beakers from glassware brand Libbey.

Get a set of four from Amazon for $44.25.
(credit: Amazon)
A creepy candelabra centerpiece(29 of 41)
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Go full Dracula's castle with this atmospheric 15-inch candelabra.

Get it from Michaels for $27.99.
(credit: Michaels)
Elegant black tapers(30 of 41)
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Replace your regular candles with these 12-inch tapers in jet black.

Get a set of 14 from Amazon for $17.99.
(credit: Amazon)
Smokey, spooky gray glassware(31 of 41)
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If you're going for a tablescape only a goth or ghost or goth ghost could love, check out H&M's dark gray glassware, which in addition to wine glasses comes in a coupe ($8.49), flute ($8.49), and tall ($4.24) and short beverage glass ($4.24).

Get the wine glass from H&M for $5.09. You can also check out this smoke-hued glassware set from Libbey.
(credit: H&M)
A set of skull placemats(32 of 41)
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These deliciously ghoulish paper placemats come in a pad of 12 for easy storage.

Get it from Food52 for $29.
(credit: Food52)
A vibe-creating strobe with spooky sounds(33 of 41)
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Set the tone for Halloween in your entry or dimly-lit dining room. This strobe machine also makes scary sounds, which you can turn on or off.

Get it from Amazon for $19.95.
(credit: Amazon)
Or a pumpkin-shaped 45 for your soundtrack(34 of 41)
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It's the songs of "It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" by Vince Guaraldi -- pressed onto limited edition vinyl in the shape of a pumpkin. And it really works! Let it spin while host for a jazzy vibe.

Get it from Amazon for $25.98.
(credit: Amazon)
A "boo" mat(35 of 41)
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When you want to get your guests in the mood, but not scare them away, this is perfect.

Get it from West Elm for $47.
(credit: West Elm)
Or an inexpensive welcome mat that's deliciously dark(36 of 41)
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You can never have enough cheap thrills -- but your guests can track in too much dirt.

Get it from Amazon for $16.75.
(credit: Amazon)
Some delightfully disturbing portraits(37 of 41)
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Stick these Gothic horror portraits on laminated cardstock on your walls. Their haunted subjects will keep an eye on you and your guests no matter where you go.

Get it from Amazon for $17.09.
(credit: Amazon)
An adorable kid-friendly "trick or treat" banner(38 of 41)
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This set of two garlands has everything: a bat, witches, mummies, draculas, skeletons, and pumpkins.

Get it from Amazon for $14.
(credit: Amazon)
Tabletop pumpkins you can use all season(39 of 41)
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They'll fit your fall decor and stay for Halloween, too. These pumpkins are made from upcycled books and will look just as nice on your mantle as your table.

Get it from Etsy for $17.50+ (available in three sizes or a set of all three).
(credit: Etsy)
Striped table runners(40 of 41)
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Grab this two-pack of cotton table runners that can go with just about any Halloween decor.

Get a pair from Amazon for $9.99+ (comes in three lengths).
(credit: Amazon)
A blood-red table setting(41 of 41)
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It's a look only vampires could love, but this is the exact right time for that.

Get a 16-piece set for $45.32.
(credit: Walmart)
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