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Today we’re asking “Is it normal for families to not eat dinner together?”. I’m guessing you’re here either because your family doesn’t, and you’re wondering if it’s a problem, or because you do, and you’ve been chatting to others who don’t, and are now wondering what’s the norm.
The simple answer, statistically, is ‘yes’.
In research carried out by Sainsbury’s in 2021, it was found that a mere 28% of families ate their evening meal together – with only 12% having breakfast together.
So yes, it is very much normal for families to not eat dinner together. If you’re not eating together as a family, there’s certainly nothing wrong or unusual about you!
But should that be a problem? Is it a worrying trend? Do we families need to rethink our schedules and our priorities if we’re not regularly sitting down to eat together? Here are some thoughts.
Is it important to have family dinner?
There are several research-proved reasons why it’s important to eat together as a family:
1. Children (and adults) tend to eat more healthily when we eat together. Even if you’re just pulling stuff out of the freezer, chances are you’re putting some veg on the side, and following the meal with fruit. When we eat together, we have to choose menus that we all enjoy (or, at least, we can all tolerate) – which means less reliance on ‘child’-targeted fast foods, and more occurrences of ‘regular’ meals, often cooked from scratch.
2. Children who eat regularly with their families usually score better at school. When you eat together, you converse together – and when kids converse with their parents, they’ll usually pick up new vocabulary, knowledge and ideas. They’ll get the chance to air opinions on a range of topics and learn how to construct an argument.
3. Children and teens who eat with the family also present fewer risk-taking behaviours as they get older. This regular time with their family acts as an anchor, giving them daily connection with their parents to fill their love-tanks and build their self-worth. It also gives structure to the day – an expectation that the young person will be there and take part in eating/conversing with parents and siblings.
4. Children who eat with their family statistically present better mental health. Conversation around a dinner table offers children and teens a chance to air grievances and concerns, talking them out with family before they become insurmountable. It also puts problems in perspective, and builds a secure sense of identity as they know they are loved and valued within the family unit.
So – with all these significant advantages of eating together with your family, why do so many families not do it?
Disadvantages of eating together as a family
Like any aspect of parenting, eating together holds the whole gamut of pros and cons. Yes, the pros are significant, but there are also some fairly big obstacles to overcome if a family wants to eat together:
1. You all need to be in the same place at the same time. For families where one or two adults work late or on shifts – or for larger families who do a variety of extra-curricular activities, this can be an impossible challenge. Our family can’t eat together a couple of nights each week because our twins have gymnastics 4-7pm, and our daughter also has gymnastics from 7-9pm. If we waited till we were all together, we’d be eating at 9.30pm, which is really when we want everyone to be in bed!
2. It can be difficult to find food everyone eats. It’s a lot easier when you start off family life by eating together, as children are often more keen to eat what you’re eating – but trying to establish this tradition later on can feel impossible because there’s so little that everyone will eat. In a family of six, I really feel this – it is rare that I cook a meal that everyone loves! However, with a steady flow of new recipes gleaned from favourite food bloggers, I’m steadily growing the list of meals everyone eats – and our kids learn to cope with food which isn’t 100% to their taste.
3. Children/teens with autism, SEND or sensory processing issues may find the experience overwhelming. I know of families where autistic children cannot stomach the smell of the food their parents are eating. Or perhaps it’s that the conversation, noise and general hubbub is just too much. Whatever the issue, it may be harder to eat together if you have a child with additional needs.
4. Adults need to be prepared to compromise on their food choices. For a foodie parent, this can be tough! If you’re used to very spicy food, or lots of seafood, or something else that your child doesn’t like, eating together will require you to compromise too. One solution is to have a weekly date night, where the adults in the household eat separately to the children, and can explore more adventurous cuisine. Even single parents can enjoy a ‘me-date’ night, where they put the kids to bed then enjoy their favourite food in peace!
5. It can get noisy, and sometimes argumentative. I won’t pretend that my kids all behave beautifully towards one another – they don’t. And sometimes mealtimes are when the harshest words are spoken. But I do feel that regular communication with each other is the way forward – even if it’s negative. Airing our views and opinions within the safety of the family home helps us to process how we’re feeling without being rejected or isolated.
Sometimes, these disadvantages are actually impossible (or unadvisable) to try and surmount, which is why the answer to the question ‘Is it normal for families to not eat dinner together?’ is often yes.
So it’s worth saying that eating together is not the only way to build healthy, happy family relationships. Many families spend focused time together at other times of the day or week – playing games, watching movies, having Nerf battles – whatever. As long as you’re intentional about finding this time to connect as a family, eating together doesn’t need to be a big part of your family culture.
But seeing as eating is something we have to do every day, and seeing as life can get crazy-busy in 21st-century family life, with little time to plan ‘extra’ activities together, mealtimes can often be an easy opportunity to daily build our family relationships.
How can food bring families together?
Despite the challenges of sitting down and eating at the same time as other members of your family, when you do manage to do it, you will probably find that it brings your family together.
Why? Well, when you sit down and eat together – without screens – you talk. And when you talk, you get to know one another. You get a better understanding of your children, what they like and dislike, but also how they interact, where they struggle, what their gifts and passions are.
And don’t underestimate the importance of your children also getting to know you. They watch and hear more than you think. They’ll spot how you talk about others, how you speak of world events and current affairs, how you guide them through problems at school or in the family. It’s a responsibility – but also a great privilege.
They say that ‘a family who eats together stays together’. It’s pretty cheesy, but it would certainly be hard to regularly sit and eat with people you hated the sight of. Checking in regularly with one another makes a crucial investment against relationship breakdown.
There is something very special when any group of people sit down to enjoy food together. You feel the love of the person who prepared the food; perhaps getting it to the table was a shared experience – the clearing up may well be! You explore new recipes and ingredients together, decide together what you like and dislike.
For Christian families, mealtimes can often be a good time for short family devotions. It’s definitely the time when we’re most likely to do ours with our kids.
Food relaxes and nourishes us, making for potentially better conversation than when we’re tired or hungry. It can mark special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries – we usually let the birthday child choose the menu – or religious festivals. (See here for how to have a Passover-style meal with your family.)
And it can simply mark the passing of the weeks: in our family, Saturday morning pancakes and Sunday evening roast dinner book-end our weekends.
How can I get my family to eat together?
If you’re not already in the habit of eating together, start small. Aim for one meal when you know you’ll all be around, and make it special: everyone’s favourite pasta dish, a cooked breakfast, a special pudding. It could even be a takeaway!
Let people know your expectations – that it will be at a certain time and place, that there will be no screens, etc. You could even set the table nicely with candles or flowers, perhaps also add a personal note to each child.
But once you’ve done a few ‘special’ meals, it’s time to try a ‘bog-standard’ meal. By that, I mean a regular midweek meal, with no fancy bits to entice anyone along. The expectation is that people eat together because they want to, not because there’s anything special about that particular meal.
Choose a day in the week when you’re all home – ideally an evening meal, but if this is impossible then perhaps a breakfast. Set a time, and communicate this to everyone, along with why you think it’s important.
Share the reasons it will benefit your children, rather then the reasons it will benefit you. You could say, “We want to hear about your day, we’re interested in what goes on at school and if we don’t sit down and eat together, we might never hear that.” It might also be good to tell them what you’ll be eating together, as another incentive.
And on that topic, plan and prepare a meal that everyone is likely to eat, even if that means that the adults have to eat more child-oriented food. You could always add a side dish for the adults, or cook each vegetable separately so that people can take what they like.
Meals which often go down well in our house are ones where everyone builds their own – like tortilla wraps, tacos, jacket potatoes or burgers. That way, you can put out a range of ingredients and no one has to eat what they don’t like. I find Taming Twins a brilliant source of quick, easy, tasty family recipes.
What are the 5 ways to create a positive mealtime experience?
After 13ish years of family mealtimes, here are my top tips:
- Make sure there’s something everyone can eat – including, if possible, a vegetable. I don’t mind my kids picking stuff out of their food as long as they’ve had ONE vegetable! But I make it easy for them by ensuring there’s always one veg they like on their plate (some of my kids are VERY limited in this!).
- Don’t be overly fussy about table manners. They will come, as children grow. Nagging creates a negative atmosphere! Just model good manners yourselves, and set some broad boundaries. My 8yo is currently getting off his seat loads during meals – out of anxiety – so we don’t want to come down hard on him, but we also want him to learn to regulate whilst at the table, so we give him something like three opportunities to get down during a meal.
- Use treats well. Many people will say ‘don’t use sweets/chocolate as rewards’ and there are very good reasons for this. But I have to say we’ve done the opposite with our kids, and it doesn’t seem to have done any harm so far! So I’d just say make sure you’re using treats wisely – it’s not a good idea to over-treat kids, and nor is it a good idea to withhold sweet stuff altogether. We tell our kids that they can have a treat at the end of the meal if they’ve eaten some vegetables and fruit, because that way they’re getting a balanced diet. If they’re not prepared to eat the good stuff, then their bodies won’t be able to deal well with the sugar and fat.
- Keep conversation positive. Now is not the time to single out a child in front of his siblings about his toileting habits, or the mess in his room. (I know – we’ve been there!) Instead, show interest in each child. Ask about their day. Remember it’s not just for your benefit, but for your siblings’ benefit. You may use this time to plan future events and activities, or to canvas opinion on something relating to your family. But try and keep it positive and light. You’ll probably find some of your funniest moments happen during meals!
- Ban screens. I’m going to be really strict on this because you just can’t have good conversation with a multitude of pings going off in the backgrounds – it’s too distracting. When your kids are young, model this to them by leaving your phones elsewhere, and you’ll find that when they grow old enough to have their own phones, you’ll have far fewer problems enforcing this rule with them, because they’ll be following your lead.
Is it normal for families to not eat dinner together?
In the UK in 2022, yes it is.
But should it be normal to not eat dinner together? No.
Of course there will be some families where it just can’t happen very easily. I’ve talked about that above. God gives us His grace for the fact we’re living in a fallen world, full of suffering and things not as they should be.
But God also designed families as the best way to raise children and send them out into the world. He designed our bodies to need regular sustenance – and he designed a whole spectrum of different flavours and textures for us to enjoy. That most of us should be able to regularly enjoy food with our children is not only normal and healthy, but a huge privilege, a way we can get to know each other better, and the foundation for – hopefully – our children’s happy adult lives as they, in turn, marry and have their own children.
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