Want to connect with your kids? Make the most of family dinners.

Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes used by permission via Unsplash.

It’s not what you cook for dinner. It’s who you eat it with that matters.

Sharing a meal and conversation is essential to a child’s healthy development, and sitting down for frequent family dinners can benefit the whole family, says Sarah Grubb, an everyday interactions strategist with the Pittsburgh nonprofit Trying Together.

“Responsive relationships are the foundation for a child’s learning and growing,” Grubb says. “When we think about how we build relationships, it’s these small day-to-day interactions that really help us. Dinnertime is one of those small moments that happen during the day; it’s one of the opportunities to connect and share.”

For busy families who juggle work, school, afterschool activities and more, it may not be easy to get the whole family together at the same time for dinner even a few nights per week. Especially in families with older kids, everyone may grab their own meal on weeknights as they hurry off in different directions.

Pediatrician Deborah Moss, medical director of UPMC for Kids, worked with one young man who told her he usually ate dinner while watching TV. When Moss asked if the family had considered eating together, she says, “the mother nearly jumped out of her seat and said, ‘What would we talk about?’ It struck me then that we’ve gotten out of the habit.”

But Grubb and Moss both tell us that sitting down together for a family meal can have huge mental and physical benefits.


Researchers find lower rates of smoking and other risk behaviors in families that eat meals together. Family meals may even lead to success at school. And “there’s also correlation data between high frequency of eating family meals and better nutrition and less obesity,” Moss says.

Family meals give kids a place to speak about their day and how they’ve been feeling. There’s no pressure to open up, but the meal gives them a quiet place to share what’s on their minds.

“It doesn’t have to be every day, and it doesn’t have to be dinner,” says Moss. “It’s the idea of setting a ritual, on a regular basis. Maybe it’s once a week, a Sunday night diner, that someone has to think about designing and maintaining. You can make it appealing by putting a candle on the table or ringing a dinner bell. Then, once people come to the table, maybe say a brief statement of gratitude.”

Even young kids can get involved in meal prep — and they might talk with you along the way. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

So how can you get kids interested in family meals and create a space where they’ll share a bit about how they’re doing?

Moss conducted research on family meals that was published in the June 2014 edition of “Infant, Child, & Adolescent Nutrition.” It included tips from parents on getting kids excited about family meals. Among the ideas:

  • Set certain nights and/or times for dinnertime
  • Make it a family ritual
  • Give kids a role in preparing dinner or setting the table
  • Let the kids help decide the meal
  • Try new foods but have options if kids don’t like what you serve
  • Explore foods that kids can put together themselves

To keep kids at the table, she suggests having conversation starters ready. “Talking about things that matter or are interesting or funny or uplifting” can get kids engaged and lead them to open up.

“A lot of families say, ‘Tell me about your day,’” Moss tells us, but that question makes some kids feel like they’re being judged. Bringing up school can cause kids to say less rather than more.

“Sometimes people talk about, ‘What happened with your report card?’ or ‘Why didn’t you do your homework?’ and kids are under such pressure these days,” says Moss. “To be able to feel safe is super important.”

Laughing about old memories or daydreaming together about the future can be a better approach.

Another big help: Let kids do something creative. Have them help cook a dish. Or let them design paper placemats or fold napkins in a special way. “There’s all sorts of ways we can tap into kids’ strengths and find ways to communicate,” Moss says. “Having extended family or friends over for mealtime also stimulates conversation and creates memories.”

No matter a child’s age, it’s important to follow their lead and notice cues that suggest they want to interact, says Grubb.

“For an infant, you might say, ‘Look at you with a mouthful of sweet potatoes!’ and that’s an invitation from an infant that you put words to,” she says. “For an older child, it might be a smile, or their energy is really high, or you can ask them, ‘What is something that went really well for you today that made you smile?’ That focuses on what the child might be experiencing.”

Keep in mind: Every dinner doesn’t have to be full of conversation.

“Part of being attuned to a child means that we notice when they feel like engaging and when they feel like backing off,” she says. “Maybe they don’t want to talk and having a quiet dinnertime is great. There’s really no formula for dinnertime conversations. So much of how a family shares meals with each other depends on their cultural background and traditions. There’s no one way to do that.”

When it’s difficult to juggle schedules and be together for dinner, parents can get frustrated. But there’s no need to put pressure on ourselves to set up a family meal a certain way or to ask the “right questions” to connect with a child, Grubb says.

“What’s important is sharing our time and presence,” she says. “It can happen many times a day, even in brief moments; it doesn’t have to be a mealtime or hours. It’s all these small moments that create a place for a child where they feel they belong and know that their feelings and experiences are welcomed and embraced by the family.”

Need easy weeknight meal ideas? Check out these recipes from local Pittsburgh chefs!