A few years ago, family dinners weren’t happening in my house. My kids were young with early bedtimes, and my husband and I both worked full-time. As a longtime parenting editor, I was well aware of the benefits kids reap from the family eating together: higher grades, lower risk of depression, better vocabulary and more fruit and veggie intake. But making a dinner we would all eat + giving baths + reading bedtime books was an equation I just couldn’t make work, and it gnawed away at me.
A few years later, my school-age kids have later bedtimes, which helps a lot. (Of course, now they also have homework.) We also made some big life decisions that led to more reasonable working hours. Most of all, I’ve figured out a few tricks and shortcuts to making this together time happen—and making it count. Sometimes it’s rushed, and sometimes (read: most of the time) it’s less than civilized, but it does happen almost every night. Here’s what worked for our family:
1. Take a hard look at nighttime activities.
Do you spend most nights running around to hockey or soccer and eating in the car? If so, you might want to see what you can do to scale back. Think of it this way: There’s a small chance your kid’s going to go pro some day, but there’s a 100 percent chance he’ll reap the social and nutritional benefits of eating together.
2. Plan ahead for family dinners.
I cannot stress enough how much family dinners hinge on thinking ahead so there’s no 4 p.m. oh-crap-what’s-for-dinner panic-shopping. Spec out your meal plan on the weekend (special meal planning notepads or apps like Cook Smarts or Plan to Eat make it easier), and shop for the week, thinking about what produce will keep the longest and which nights you’re likely to be most pressed for time. Do some chopping prep on the weekend, consider batch cooking and use the slow cooker—whatever you can do to cut down on weeknight prep time.
3. Take shortcuts wherever you can.
There’s no shame in making things as easy on yourself as possible. So go ahead and buy pre-cut veggies, or stick to the same daily theme nights (really, are your kids ever going to get sick of Taco Tuesday?). And cut yourself some slack when it comes to cooking gourmet; simple deconstructed meals or breakfast-for-dinner are totally legit family dinner solutions.
4. Consider breakfast.
If evenings are just too crazy, there’s another option for that daily family meal: breakfast! You can reap almost all the same benefits of time together by doing it in the AM. There’s almost no prep time required, and by setting your alarm clock just a few minutes earlier, you can still fit in that quality time.
5. Get them talking.
For many kids asking “How was school today?” is the least effective way to find out how school was. But we need to help kids practice the art of conversation to counteract the antisocial effects of screens. So make it fun: play Roses & Thorns, where they talk about the best and worst part of their day, or pose talkers like “When did you laugh today?” or “What would you change about your day?”
6. Keep expectations low.
If your kids are little, spills and bad table manners are going to happen, and family dinners might not be very relaxing or rewarding for now. That’s OK—learning isn’t always pretty, but rest assured you are moving the needle in the right direction. And if you get in the habit of family dinners when your kids are younger, you’ll have the relationship when they’re older.