Food Why the Family Dinner Matters Now More Than Ever

by Jenny Rosenstrach | April 15, 2020

In my family, the ritual of dinner together is our magnetic north.

When I first started this family dinner mission, I joked that I was getting our daughters used to the idea at such a young age, so that when they grew into eye-rolling, holed-up-in-their-bedroom high schoolers, they'd be so programmed to report to the table at 7:00 p.m. that even teenage stubbornness wouldn't stop them.

I'm pleased to report that this actually worked. Even when we are stuck in the house together all day, even if they don't stick around longer than it takes to inhale their chicken tacos, it feels good to feed them.

So good, it turns out, that I’ve been documenting this practice on my blog Dinner: A Love Story for 10 years now. Here are three important lessons I’ve learned about this ritual — and how to make it happen.

3 valuable lessons about family dinner

More than just a routine or function of the day, gathering together at the table is about more than the food.

1. It's the sitting down that matters

It doesn’t matter if you’re eating a frozen pizza or your family’s famous rice and beans recipe. You don't need a PhD in dinner to know that the most important part of the ritual is simply in sitting down together (and at the same time). The point is that everyone has left their respective worlds of social media and conference calls, and has carved out a period of the day to decompress, connect and catch up. If you do this long enough, that's the part you'll hanker for more than any fancy food.

The how: Banish devices. This goes for the adults at the table, too. Even if you're tempted to search online for something related to the conversation or you feel you must show your kids that hilarious puppy meme that went viral. RESIST. There's no such thing as a quick check of a phone. Before you know it, you're down the rabbit hole, and dinner is over.

Family eating meal in open plan kitchen together

2. It doesn't have to be from scratch, every night

If you want to have family dinner become a regular, consistent ritual, the best thing you can do is not force yourself to cook from scratch every night. The surest way to kill the joy of it is to think of it as an obligation.

The how: Go with a handful of simple dishes. The meals you cook for your kids don't have to be fancy and you don't need a huge rotation of them. A basic baked chicken, black bean tacos or a vegetable-packed stir-fry. Pick simple, crowd-pleasing meals you can make on autopilot. Nothing kills the mood or the momentum more than having to follow a 10-step recipe calling for 17 ingredients that you can’t find anyway. And, it doesn’t have to be all on you — have your partner and the kids take nights as guest chefs.

3. Everyone will start craving it

On the most primal level, we all crave a break from the stresses of the day. This is especially true for the kids. I know they appreciate a time of the day when they don't have to be connected or on. If we go too long without a real sit-down dinner, someone in the house — usually a kid — will call us out on it. "I feel like we haven't had dinner together this week," my 17-year-old said during one particularly stressful week. Which, of course, was code for, "Please make it happen ASAP, mom."

The how: Make the table a welcoming place. This is a family dinner mantra I stole from my friend Brooke, and I instantly embraced the concept when I heard it. The idea is that we all try to bring our best selves to the table and treat each other with respect: no nagging, no bickering, no judging. It's not always easy, but the effort is well worth the comfortable feeling we all have when we're sitting there.

Jenny Rosenstrach

is the New York Times bestselling author of Dinner: A Love Story, which is also the name of her blog. You can find her @dinneralovestory.