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Family Day: Share a Meal. (Best Ideas for Mealtime with Kids)

By Melissa Summers

September 25th is Family Day which means it’s a day to eat dinner with your family.  This ‘holiday’ was started in 2001 by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Researchers at the center have “consistently found that the more often children eat dinner with their families, the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use illegal drugs.” Family Day is an effort by the Center to promote family dinners as a way to reduce substance abuse among children and teens.

I admit I’m a little skeptical about family dinners truly reducing substance abuse, I suspect the effect may have more to do with families slowing down, enjoying each other’s company and being involved. Of course, Dr Greene has a pretty compelling set of reasons the family dinner table is important. Along with nutritional benefits and substance abuse reduction, Dr Greene suggests kids who eat family meals perform better in school and are less likely to have eating disorders.

I’m pretty sure Family Meals can promote world peace and help you live forever.

I just made that up, but let’s say for a minute family meals don’t even give your kids all these benefits, can sitting down to a meal and talking with your family really hurt? This is where my daughter would chime in with, “If you make that meat loaf again it could really hurt.”

The goal behind Family Day is starting a new habit of eating more meals as a family, starting by eating together today. I thought today we’d look at some ways to make that easier.

For a long time my husband and I bowed out of family dinners because of our picky daughter. It seemed whatever food I put on the table would cause her to recoil in horror. Her horror at being expected to eat a BITE OF CHICKEN would be expressed loudly and since I didn’t want to get involved in a battle of wills over food, I would bite my tongue off during our meals. And though that probably sounds really enjoyable to all of you, it wasn’t at all enjoyable and made us stop eating together until my daughter was four or so.

What we realized at that point is that the food wasn’t the part of sitting down sharing a meal that was important. What was important was that we were sitting down together and talking. So we made a family meal and made sure to have some things on the table we knew our kids would eat. Things like carrots, yogurt and bread. Having these options on the table eased the pressure of expecting our daughter to consume (((GASP))) a piece of chicken.

I think that’s an important part of your family meals to keep in mind. The goal is to be together, sometimes you’ll have to be flexible in order to do that. Maybe you have to grab a rotisserie chicken and tossed salad from the market on your way home from work. Go ahead. Sometimes your kids won’t want to eat what’s on the table. That’s fine some of the time, no one’s gong to starve.

If you hate cooking, no one’s going to enjoy the meal if you’re exhausted and put out from having to cook for an hour. I really don’t enjoy cooking so I’ve ended up relying on simple and fast meals I can prepare in thirty minutes or so.

Two great cookbooks to look into for that purpose are Desperation Dinners and Seat of the Pants Suppers. Both these books have allowed me to develop a list of 8 meals I can create off the top of my head. This is no small feat considering my complete and utter lack of interest in cooking.

These books aren’t going to develop your gourmet cooking abilities, but remember the point is sitting down with your family, sharing a meal and their company. It doesn’t have to be a Martha Stewart meal to accomplish that.

When I sit down with my family for dinner I want to talk but I don’t necessarily want to play 20 questions to coax information out of the children and I definitely don’t want to talk about how disgusting this chicken is.

I read about this great idea for getting your family to really talk at the table. The parent provided topics on slips of paper and each person at the table drew a slip of paper and talked about that topic. She found that giving each person something to talk about (“If you could be an animal, which one would you be?” or “What is something you’d like to be doing in ten years?”) and giving them everyone’s full attention really helped her get to know her kids in a way the typical dinnertime question, “How was your day?” did not.

Taking that idea a step further is this game available at our affiliate Amazon. The set includes “51 easy-to-play dinner games like Guess the Macaroni, Last Bite and Pass The Pepper.” The description says the games open dinner up to fun conversation and “even encourage kids to eat their veggies and finish their milk.”

I’d like to introduce them to my daughter, Madison “I-Don’t-Drink-Milk” Summers.

I would like to challenge you to sit down tonight and eat dinner with your family. You can make your meal or grab take out. It doesn’t have to be fancy, we’re eating leftover salmon and couscous (this where Madison would insert her patented gagging sound) but making it a goal to sit down with your family at least a few times a week will have rewards. Maybe from the health benefits but really if I never sat down to eat with my family I might never have known that my son can quote entire scenes from Spongebob. Those are benefits you can’t put a price on.

Do me a favor, take a picture of you and your family enjoying a meal tonight and post a link to it in the comments. I can’t wait to show you a picture of my daughter gagging over her salmon. We’re making memories here people.

Melissa Summers
About the Author

Melissa Summers

Melissa Summers was a regular contributor writing Melissa’s Buzz Off.


Melissa Summers was a regular contributor writing Melissa’s Buzz Off.

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  • Perhaps the reason kids are less likely to do drugs if they have family dinner is because the families that do dinner are less likely to get involved in drugs. eh..
    We’ve always done family dinner yet I still have 1 kid who leapt with great glee into that swill that is the drug culture. The other 3 are ok, tho.

  • I am making dinner right now and my 9 yr old is in tears because it it spaghetti and meatballs. What kid doesn’t like spaghetti? It is totally not normal.
    I think family meal time is difficult because not all member of the family are home together like they used to be. Mon through Fri my husband isn’t home. I usually sit down with the kids and eat and then again with my husband at night.
    But my ass really isn’t liking that.

  • mo

    i stopped letting my (then) almost three year old watch bob the builder when i realised that he could quote the whole fifty minute video from memory (but usually only in five minute chunks at a time). i do not want to have to put up with bob and his stupid talking vehicles more than once a day, thanks.
    i try and eat dinner with him every night but most of the time ‘dinner’ involves me eating and him taking two bites of carrot and then mashing the rest of his dinner into an unrecogniseable pulp before declaring himself finished. but he hasnt starved to death yet, so maybe its working?

  • I have proof it works just fine. I’ve had a picky eater for the last nearly 8 years and she continues to thrive, in spite of my ability to cook *the most disgusting meals in the entire world*.

  • Murray

    I like eating together as a family…only wish someone else would do the cooking…and the cleaning. Here’s our meal from tonight:

  • Our family dinner. It is a rare occurance during the week – but we made a point to do it for the photo-op!

  • We have a toddler on the Air Diet, too. I hear it’s all the rage in Hollywood. Here’s a shot:

  • Thanks for sharing this! We didn’t have the time or energy to cook anything complicated, so we made pizza. I walked to Trader Joe’s, bought pizza dough, and my daughter helped me put them together. Here are pictures of the evening:

  • Chris

    I forgot to take a picture at dinner, but we did take pictures at Dairy Queen. Does that count? We walked over to get ice cream since it was such a nice day today here in S.E. Michigan. DQ is only open until Oct. 25, and who knows if we’ll get there again befor ethey close for the season.

  • DQ can count, you were spending time with your family and to me that’s the biggest thing.

  • Wierdly, tonight we invited a friend over for dinner, something we haven’t done in far too long. As we sat around, companionably burping and watching football, I thought “This is so relaxing! It’s like he’s family”(forgetting, for a moment, that ‘relaxing’ and ‘family’ don’t often go together.)
    No picture of the meal, but you can see my 9-month-old son helping me cook it at

  • Here is our family dinner picture:
    It’s too bad that you can’t hear the dinner too 😉

  • melissaS

    I love that you happened to invite a friend over.
    Since we’ve been ‘removed’ from family, we’ve had to create new family out of our pool of friends.

  • My ‘Family Day’ Dinner was the height of irony.
    My husband had his annual vendor sponsered golf outing today, which includes a dinner. Something he failed to mention to me.
    I decided to make a dish from my latest Martha Stewart Everyday Food magazine, which is something I don’t do if Logan isn’t going to be home. Since I’m not wild about cooking for two people. Bats and Cobwebs.
    Here is my son enjoying my meal (there’s sausage in it, instant favorite).
    Here is my daughter cursing me and my desire to prepare food with actual flavor. Oh she’s charming.

  • Hi!
    I have been reading Suburban Bliss for over a year now and it/you have worked your way into my bookmarks and my routine…love to check in and see how you are dealing with what life has dished out for the day! Thanks for sharing, even if it is painful.
    The reason I am writing for the first time (ever!) is because I must disagree with the assumption that having family dinners will help kids avoid eating disorders. That is simply not true.
    We had dinner together all the years my daughters were growing up…at least 13 years worth…and my youngest still wound up with anorexia. It is a disease with so many variables that I hate seeing simplistic remedies put out there. I thought I did all the right things (never talking about weight,never dieting or saying “I’m fat”, never having a scale or making food a power play) and still the very worst happened. I just don’t like seeing information put out there that is so general and misleading. Sorry this is a negative-ish post, but I feel so strongly about this, since I just went through it!Thanks for considering it.

  • melissaS

    nita, I absolutely agree with you.
    I think the research I was citing, via Dr Greene, simply says less children who eat meals with their families develop eating disorders.
    Much like less children who are breastfed develop things like ear infections, but still some breastfed kids to get ear infections.
    I agree with you though in being skeptical about these claims.
    I approach family meals a lot like I approach breastfeeding. It can’t hurt and hopefully you can make it happen because of the good things about it.
    PS: I had an eating disorder for many years and also spent many years eating dinners with my family.

  • I’m afraid I’m too busy juggling dishes and spilt glasses of milk to handle a camera, but this link might give you the mental image you’re looking for:

  • Hi there Melissa. I don’t have any children of my own yet but I do have nephews and nieces (my partners anyway). Having watched them all with all of their associated pernickity eating habits, I think that whatever happens with the rest of the day, having one decent sit down meal is a good thing. Even if very little food gets eaten.
    This is a fantastic way of promoting it and I love seeing the snippets into other peoples lives.

  • J.K.

    While we didn’t have a family dinner last night because of my husband’s work schedule, we manage family dinners probably four nights a week. My kids eat better when we eat together, occasionally try new things (even asparagus risotto!), and when friends of theirs joins us on these nights, the friends try new things. We started having frequent family dinners in earnest 3 1/2 years ago after my oldest was very sick. For a month after he was released from the hospital, a local group brought us dinner every single night (I was so emotionally spent after a day of meds and physical and occupational therapy for his recovery that I could barely form words, much less cook). There was no excuse for not sitting down together, and the longer term gift that has given us is one for which I am truly grateful.
    I’ve also turned some of the work of the family dinner into a group effort. About 15 minutes before the food is ready, I call a 10 minute family cleanup – everyone drop everything, set a timer, turn on some music, and help neaten the family room and get the table ready.
    There are many great cookbooks out there – but I depend on Sunset’s 30 Minutes or Less book from 1997 (unfortunately out-of-print) and “One Bite Won’t Kill You” by Hodgeman and Chast. Also, I post a weekly menu so I don’t have to think at all when it’s dinner time – I bought the “What to Eat” pad from to discipline myself to do this. My old home ec teacher would proud.

  • Chris

    Well then, if Dairy Queen counts, here are our photos.

  • Jill

    When my sister and I were young, my mother realized we had no concept of “company manners”. Her solution was to move us into the dining room for dinner, light candles, and for a week she used her good china to serve us. We slowed down, we talked, and we kept the dining room and candle part of the routine from then on.
    I’ve lit candles and used my dining room daily since my boys were born, and I can tell a huge difference between their dinner time behavior and that of visiting friends. Mine are required to wait until everyone sits before eating, to stay until everyone is done, and are not allowed to say unpleasant comments about the food. Dinner is an occassion, not just a way to fill your belly. I won’t deny that eating with two young kids is always relaxing, but I think the end result will be worth any extra struggle.

  • Jaida

    I feel such camaraderie with your daughter. I too was a terribly picky eater (oh, the struggles over just drinking the damn milk). I remember actually crying most nights when I found out what was for dinner. Although I was always a skinny kid, I never starved, and I was inspired to begin cooking the family meal just to ensure it would be something I could tolerate. Now, at 26 I like nearly everything (though still vegetarian) and can even think fondly about the power struggles that were family dinners. They were never really about the food, just catching up with each other.

  • *sigh*
    Melissa, why must you do this to me? In the spirit of supporting my beloved fellow blogger, I give you the World’s Most Awkwardly Taken Picture. Also, enjoy my bloat.
    Oh, right. And the family time was wonderful.

  • We were a day or two late with the photographic evidence, but as I say in my post, we made a family decision when my son was born to always eat as a family at the table. I’ve always instinctively felt that this was the best thing for families to do. It’s great to see that research proves what I felt in my gut.

  • I feel for the kid, though I know it is annoying to live with a picky eater. I was the worst. I never ate a raw tomato til I was 25 – they just looked so unbearably disgusting to me – and I still have never tasted gravy (I saw how it was made! Horrors!).
    God, with His/Her/Its amazing sense of humor, sent me a boyfriend that is even worse now than I was then. Doesn’t like marinara sauce. Only wants homemade chocolate pudding “if it tastes a little burnt.” Oh, I’ll burn it a little for you, pal.
    Thanks for letting me rant.

  • Lisa

    Notice the setting? Restaurant, not home.
    Hubby works late most nights, so it is usually just me and the kids, but we usually eat dinner at the table together.