Family Dinner

The quick answer:  Everything can be improved, including the family dinner.  Measure your food culture against these 10 criteria.


A Family of Excellence

Did you appreciate your high school teachers?  I suppose I mostly didn’t, but I remember several with grateful affection.  Mr. Goodrich, our college prep English teacher, turned me on to writing.  Mr. Lopes, in sociology, planted the idea that most things in life could—and should—be improved.  As kids of the ‘50s we grew up thinking the adults knew what they were doing.  Mr. Lopes disabused us of that idea.  The world, he seemed to say, wanted for improvement. 

The Adams family of colonial Massachusetts was discussed in our sociology text.  The patriarch, Henry Adams, came to America in the Puritan migration of the 1630s.  The Adams family was doing something special because for generations they produced a stream of public leaders including presidents (2), governors, and judges.  I was fascinated by the idea that a family could achieve excellence, and continue to improve for centuries.  I still am.

Want to build a family of lasting excellence?  I don’t mean your kids have to be governors or president—there are a limited number of those positions; it’s a zero-sum game.  But think about the excellence that’s unlimited, that all can achieve.  True excellence is about rearing a great family, achieving success in whatever pursuit attract you, and leaving your corner of the world better than you found it.  If you—as I do—think your kids are better than you were at their age, and your grandkids overflow with potential, then you’re on track.

Greatness doesn’t come easily and Mom has a lot to do with it, but I know where it starts—around the family dinner table.  The quality of the family’s dining experience is as important as the taste of the food.

Family Harmony

I just finished the book Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order.  The book opened with the phenomena of fireflies that blink in unison.  It finished by observing those transforming moments when humans act in unison.  Such synchronization is uncommon but has great power.  Congregational singing is a simple example.  Singing in unison creates harmony in action.   

Pondering a bit further I came back to last week’s book, French Kids Eat Everything..  The book noted the well-entrenched culture of dinner—a discipline of behavior and time.  No competing snacks were eaten before dinner, and everyone ate, and enjoyed, the cook’s offering.  There was a code of conduct that included the duty of conversation.  Dinner, in groups large or small, is an island of pleasure amidst the demands of the day. 

Finally it dawned on me:  Dinner is about more than food—it’s a daily exercise of family harmony.  Like all forms of exercise, it strengthens the muscles we use.

Family Dinner

You may think I’m preaching to the choir here.  Anyone who reads this blog is likely having ideal family dinners, right?  Not so.  Looking around, I observe three common problems with family dinners:

  1. They aren’t happening as often as we imagine.
  2. The food isn’t all that healthy.
  3. The dinner experience could be improved.

My old sociology teacher, Mr. Lopes, would be pleased to see a topic with so much room for improvement.  I noted above how the work of cooking a meal “gives importance” to the food.  The labor of the cook can sanctify the dinner offering, and transform those who partake. 

Do you eat alone?  In the next post we’ll talk about family dinners for singletons.

The Ideal Family Dinner

Here are ten criteria of an ideal family dinner for your consideration.  If you were a hidden observer at any family’s dinner, applying these criteria in the brief time of eating meal would be a fair measure of the family.  After your next family dinner, ask the gang to score themselves—A, B, D, D or F—on these 10 criteria.  The most common score is your total score.  Is there room for improvement?

  1. Participation: This is the glue that enriches and binds all together.  The success of family dinner increases with the proportion of the family engaged in preparation.  And what better way to teach nutrition and cooking skills?
  2. Love at home: the degree of affection and kindness shown between family members is a barometer of family relationships.  The beautiful wife had a rule that the table was a safe place—no blows or digs were allowed.
  3. Conversation:  The family culture, even with children, is revealed by the topics discussed. 
  4. Manners:  A good metric of self-control.  The beautiful wife, when the children were young, used to read a paragraph after dinner from an author remembered as Miss Manners. 
  5. Laughter:  The more the better in my view but all in good taste.
  6. Gratitude:  Count compliments, as opposed to complaints, for those who prepare the meal.
  7. Face time:  In the hustle and bustle of life a day can pass without meaningful face time with family members.  Most of this happens during the time together at dinner.  How long do you spend at dinner?
  8. Values:  learning, etc
  9. Learning:  Family values and traditions are best taught at mealtime.  Reach beyond Dad lecturing—participation empowers and endows.
  10. Healthiness:  Look for a meal of whole foods with plenty of vegetables but sparing of meat—you know that was coning, didn't you?

Please Comment:  Please share your best family dinner practices and ideas.  This is a topic where everyone has expertise so please, lots of comments.

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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    It’s been a long time I have never taken my family to dinner, but we should do a get together sometimes to remember the times we spent together and cherish the moments. Life is really short and I will regret it if we don’t get along in our lives with our family.

Reader Comments (12)

Growing up we had dinner as a family every night. It was only on Sundays that we actually sat around and talked during dinner. With eleven siblings, we all rushed to eat our food - because if you didn't finish it fast enough you wouldn't get seconds! I definitely enjoyed Sunday dinners the best.

When my husband was in college we didn't have a table. Our daughter never saw us sit down and eat, mostly because my husband was never home- school during the day, working at night. She is the pickiest eater now. When our second child started on solid food I decided to change things. We got a table and we started eating meals as a family. The rest of our children are not so picky when it comes to food. I was injured in a motorcycle accident (just me, the bike and a parking lot- nothing major) and spent a couple months recovering on the couch where I most comfortable. Everyone else ate at the dinner table. We definitely felt more disconnected as a family during that time. As a family, we can definitely improve our dinner by slowing down and adding more conversation.

April 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

hello! i have 7 siblings, and we had lots of family dinners. now my little family has them. they are so important. i enjoyed reading your 10 criteria, and am happy that most are doing well here. but, as your teacher said, there's room for improvement. i've got to go - time to make dinner!

April 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNoreen

loved this post! it has really inspired me to improve our family dinners. my favorite part was, "dinner is about more than food-it's a daily exercise of family harmony." beautiful! thanks for your blog!

April 24, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkristi

Eating dinner as a family is so important to me. Even though they don't often last too long these days with a rambunctious toddler and teething baby. I think it is so important to have a reliable time to look forward to each day to have some face to face interaction. I love point number one about getting the entire family to help out in preparation. My two year old is just starting to get interested in cooking with me and I'm excited because I have so many fond memories of meal preparation with my family growing up and want her to have the same. I have little apron for her that makes her really look forward to "cooking with mommy" even if all she does is whisk.

April 24, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteremily

I find it ironic that we would post on our health blogs about the same topic within a day of each other! I wrote mine before I read yours and appreciate how we bring up different points about the same important concept. Truly, nothing can replace regular family dinnertime.

April 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKatrina

Hi! I grew up in a large family that ate meals together every night (and then switched off for dishes since we didn't have a dishwasher).
My husband, son (12yo) and I make it a point of eating together at the table at least 5 times a week. Sometimes on fridays, we make homemade pizza and I slack on sitting at the table and we sit in the living room and watch something on tv instead. My sons friends love coming to our house at have mealtime with us because they know they will be fed well, sit at the table, use cloth napkins and have plenty of laughter and discussions. His friends truly look forward to it, I suppose most of them don't have family dinners like that.
We make sure the conversation centers around what funny thing happened that day (i always ask if something made him laugh at school that's a great conversation starter) and what we are looking forward to...we try and stay away from difficult discussions or discipline. food doesn't digest well when there are issues being discussed.
Now if I could only get him to pick up his socks around the house...that would be an improvement!

April 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNancy From Mass

When I was helping to plan the menu for a week of camping with a group of young women I asked them what they would like to see on the menu. No one offered up any ideas so to help them along I asked, "What do you eat at home for dinner?" I was surprised to hear that every one of the 5 girls in my group does not eat dinner (or any meals for that matter) together with their families - it's just an 'eat what you want, when you want' kind of situation at every meal.

In our home we eat dinner together every night. When I'm planning my 2-week menu I ask my kids (ages from 18 on down) what they'd like to see included and what they'd like to help prepare. They seem to be more excited about what's offered when it's something that they asked for. My oldest girls will sometimes peruse our cookbooks and ask to prepare something new - these new discoveries will sometimes join our list of old standards and add some variety.

April 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGerb

We are just beginning our dinner traditions as our boys are 3 and 1 and we have another one on the way. But we do make sure to turn the TV off (we have a great room, so there is a TV adjacent to our kitchen/eating area), and we have started serving dinner on the table itself, not scooping from the kitchen. This allows our older boy to help choose what he wants on his plate and holds him accountable to eat what he chose. We do talk and share some, but I know this area will continue to progress as they get older, have more experiences, and language skills improve.

I grew up with having dinner as a family at least 5 days a week and plan to continue this with our kids. There is no excuse/reason not to in my mind.

April 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

Lisa, you've discovered the power of participation. Kids are more likely to want the things they chose for themselves.

Gerb, nice to hear from you. Sadly, many families have gotten out of the habit of eating together. The parents thus lose the best forum for building solidarity while passing on family values and traditions. Asking kids to participate in menu planning is a very wise strategy.

Nancy, you agree then, that laughter is the best sauce.

Katrina, I like your blog and invite all to visit it (

Laura, I grew up in a large family also and remember what a production dinner was. The benefit was all the laughter around the table, especially on Sunday when you could invite guests.

April 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

Excellent post! I am someone who is always trying to streamline the processes that occur in my home. I want to do things as effectively and efficiently as possible. Preparing,eating, and cleaning up dinner were some processes I was always working to shorten - but not so much anymore. I've had to let go of a lot and slow down a lot, but it has been well worth the effort. My girls have always congregated to the kitchen table after school for a snack, homework and such, so now I try to keep our afternoons open so a lot of time can be spent in the kitchen together. The girls take turns doing homework and music practicing while they help with dinner. We talk and learn, and learn to listen to each other talk during these after school hours. So in a sense, family dinner becomes the entire second half of their day. My husband comes home and the girls are excited to eat with him and serve him what they have helped prepare, and then they take way too long doing the dishes as they mess around with each other. But we are together, and that does a lot for all of us.

One of my many ideas to improve is to invite one child a night to be in charge of leading the entire dinner conversation for that evening. Wouldn’t that be a riot? And so great for their communication skills as well!

April 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRachel

My family (11 counting parents) always ate together, but I'm not sure the harmony was always there. I remember more than a few guilt trips. Dinner time seemed more a time to tank up on fuel for the night than anything else. Eat fast so you may have a chance at seconds and make sure those beans (a pint worth) make it back to mom if you don't want to get an ear full.

I've always heard how important eating together is and while the kids were young we did lots better with it. Once they hit teenage, though, there have been too many distractions. I want to work on it, so we should see some changes soon.

April 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

I was also going to mention, although we struggle with the actual sit down and eat together part of dinner, I do have the kids help with cooking, planning, shopping and cleaning up.

April 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

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