How to Have Better Family Meals

You have more chances than you realize to connect with your family at the table. During the work week, most families have two opportunities a day to dine together (breakfast and dinner) and three chances (breakfast, lunch and dinner) on the weekends. That gives us a total of 16 traditional meal opportunities a week to connect with our families. Anne Fishel, a Harvard Medical School associate clinical professor of psychology and executive director of the Family Dinner Project, says the goal should not be to hit some magic number for family meals, but to find as many dining opportunities together as possible and make the most of them.

“When I work with families, I tell them, ‘How about having one great meal or one good-enough meal and see where that takes you,'” said Dr. Fishel. “The secret sauce of family dinner is the conversation and the games and the fun at the table.” Here are the pros and cons of various family meal options:

Breakfast 

Pros: Morning is often the only time everyone is together; kids love breakfast food. A study of 8,000 children in Europe showed that kids who ate breakfast with parents five or more days a week were 40 percent less likely to be overweight than their peers. 

Cons: Mornings can be rushed. Harvard’s Family Table project estimates that many families only have about 10 minutes for breakfast. Kids may be sleepy and not as engaged in conversation.

Lunch 

Pros: Usually simple and faster than other meals; great for picnics.  

Cons: Just two chances a week (Sat, Sun) for most working families; only family meal with a potential negative. Studies show that children who eat daily lunch with parents are more likely to be overweight.

Dinner 

Pros:  Longest meal of day (about 22 mins); a good time to catch up on events of day, school, work etc. 

Cons: Tough on working parents to get home in time to cook; for teens, homework and sports conflicts interfere with dinner time.

Weekend Meals 

Pros: More time to prepare food, fewer scheduling conflicts. 

Cons: Television (sports) may be more tempting; kids may have less to say about school.

Extended Snack 

Pros: Great option when one parent can’t be home for full dinner; use time at table for game, conversation. 

Cons: Adds extra calories to the day; time at table will be shorter than a regular meal.

Just Dessert 

Pros: Kids love dessert so they will definitely show up; best to serve fruit at least some of the time. 

Cons: Risk of extra calories and sugaring up kids before bedtime