Table Time: Creating Positive Eating Experiences for Your Family

When I was growing up, from toddler age through high school, we ate dinner together as a family almost-every-single-night, save for the days we had late games or practices or Dad had to give a lecture.  Somehow, my dad was able to get home by 6pm and we would sit down for a civilized home-cooked meal.  Dinner time was sacred.  It was the only time during the week we were all together.  It was the time designated to share details from our day, talk about frustrations and challenges and epiphanies and anything else. There were no topics out of boundary.  In fact, dinner time was as much about the food being served as it was about the conversation amongst our family.  Now that I’m a parent, I sadly realized the tradition of eating together, one of my most visceral memories from my youth, had ended when I left for college.  It was never reborn after I started a family of my own.   Shame on me.

I had every excuse in the book why dinner time wasn’t sacred for my family: my kids eat very early, my husband literally never eats home Monday-Thursday night, I don’t (didn’t) cook, I didn’t want to have to prepare anything ahead of time, it’s easier to make dinner catch-as-catch can.  However, when Mom was in the hospital (one of the many times) and I was sitting by her bedside rehashing every single memory from my youth, my mind kept wandering back to dinner time.  I felt like I was doing a disservice to her.  I suddenly  had a strong urge to instill this tradition into my own home. I realized that whether I cooked or whether dad was home for dinner was irrelevant.  Being together as a family (or part of), sitting calmly at a table, eating and discussing the days’ events was more important than schedules and bedtimes and quite honestly, anything that happens at the end of a long harried day.

The infamous table - host to many meals and conversations

I am so grateful for Mom’s dinner times for many reasons.

First, mealtime forces responsibility.  Growing up, everyone in my family had a specified role in the meal/meal prep.  Mom always cooked.  Someone was responsible for setting the table, someone always cleared the table, someone would bring dessert over to the table.  The experience felt more like a partnership rather than a one-way smorgasboard where we would simply sit and expect Mom to serve.

Eating family-style helped me foster healthy eating habits and table manners.  I was required to eat or try to eat what was being served.  Lucky for me Mom was a truly amazing cook but, there were definitely meals where I had no interest eating the plated food.  I was encouraged to try everything and I wasn’t allowed a choice of ten different alternatives.  If Mom took time to prepare the meal, I had to show appreciation and take time to try the dish.  And, I always had some sort of vegetable to accompany the main course that needed at least “one bite.”  I understand now how hard it is to put together dinner after a long day.  It’s so much easier to default to the short list of what our children actually enjoy eating to avoid any battles at the dinner table.  But, I was so surprised to discover that my son actually likes cauliflower and cous cous and pesto.  If I hadn’t a) gotten the guts to sample these foods or b) told him he had to try them,  he’d still be resigned to eating chicken nuggets and applesauce every night.  And, the extra bonus, he’s proud of himself too!  Sure, most of the times he doesn’t like what he’s trying but, when he gets to something he likes, it’s like finding a hidden treasure, and, you can add another dish to your dinner repertoire.

a post meal thumbs up to Judy's Shrimp and Feta Dish!

With dinner time comes respect for family members and for ourselves.  This means that we now eat together.  When someone is finished before the others, we don’t get up and run off t0 start an art project or grab dessert.  We sit and wait for everyone to be finished.  That way no one rushes or feels as though they’re not being considered in the process.  In addition, my kids have learned the basics.  They know to put their napkin in their lap, first thing.  They don’t use their fingers.  They use please and thank you and ask for seconds when they’re ready.  It’s so nice to get positive feedback from other parents when they see these manners exhibited outside the home.  Let’s face it.  Kids are parrots.  If we eat with our fingers and grab the food without asking and rush up from the table when we’re done, they’ll do the same.

We also try to make dinner time fun.  Growing up, my dad played a game called “Word of the Day.”  He’d open the dictionary, pick out a word, use it in a sentence, and then we had to try to guess its meaning.  Honestly, I still remember verbatim my first word of the day, “harbinger – a sign of something to come or to happen.”  Whenever I use that word I smile (it might’ve been on the SAT too, I don’t remember).  My friend Julie plays a game called “Roses and Thorns”  that I’ve also adapted to my family.  The parent asks the child(ren) if they had any roses or thorns that day at school.  Roses signify some positive experiences and conversely, thorns are the not-so-great experiences.  I LOVE THIS.  Not only does it get the kids to open up but, it also reminds them that it’s okay if a day isn’t all roses…it’s only natural to have some thorns.  Request Night is where the kids can request what they want that morning before school.  Breakfast for Dinner is always a hit–there’s something so appealing about having pancakes at dinnertime.  Get my drift?

At Breakfast-for-Dinner my daughter realized her half-eaten waffle looked like the United States!

I haven’t worked everything out yet on the dinner front.  My husband is still never usually home by 6pm but, at least I’m trying to create a sense of family, strength and openness that will hopefully last a lifetime for my kids (and me too)…

 Do you eat as a family?  What are your dinner time routines? Any positive experiences can you report back?



  1. Michelle says:

    Great post Shari. As my kids have gotten older (they around the same ages as yours), they are able to eat a little later so we can eat as a family. I’m lucky that Jeff often gets home by 6:15 so we eat around 6:30. They set the table, napkins on laps, etc. They are becoming much better eaters so it’s easier to cook for them. Not big veggie eaters but we have them try and at least they have to keep it on their plates. They actually just started eating lettuce!!! We do talk about our days – somedays it’s “Soble Center” (like ESPN Sportscenter where we give highlights) or best/worst part of day. Or what did you learn/what was funny…While we don’t eat as a family every night (this summer there is a lot of eating at Jack’s baseball games), we try and do it when we can. Even a weekend break fast or lunch can be a great time for a family sit down meal.

  2. Loved this post, Shari! When we started family dinner several years ago my kids were like feral beasts. They couldn’t sit for more than a couple of minutes, forks and knives lay untouched, they grabbed broccoli from the serving bowl with their grubby fists. After about 20 minutes, my husband and I would send them from the table and wonder where we went wrong. But it didn’t take long for them to figure things out and now dinner is our best family time – eaten at leisure and with cutlery!

  3. Love this. I think what is missed when there’s no family dinner isn’t so much the food but the feeling. The feeling of a family unit. I am so happy you mentioned table manners. Sitting at a table with patience takes practice. It can’t be a vacation or restaurant-only activity. I’m going to try word of the day and roses and thorns.

  4. love Soble center….I think might try something like that for Alex. Thanks!

  5. amazing time of the day to catch up isn’t it. I only hope i can continue it even as the kids’ schedules start to get overrun.

  6. agreed. what starts in the home is parroted outside the home….especially when it comes to manners!


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