Please Pass the Family Bonding: Making Meal Times Special

Teacher impersonations, dad jokes, and laughter. Lots of laughter. My family, seated around the dining room table, eating a minimum of two (maybe three) different meals—sometimes nachos on paper plates, sometimes homemade pasta on real dishes. And family bonding in full effect. That’s what you’ll find if you show up at my house around 6:30 on a weeknight.

And, if you peer inside my window from outside, you may also potentially watch as we visibly shake off the day’s anxieties and stresses before sitting down. The sibling feud is forced to fizzle as we take our respective seats. I don’t think we’ve ever actually spoken this rule, but the routine is so long-held and valued that nobody dares disrespect the dinner table.

The dinner table is our space. It’s where we gather each night and talk about our days. It’s where we turn the music up, push out our chairs, and have dance parties. It’s also where we pile the games on family game night, and it’s where we spend sometimes hours at a time doing my favorite thing: family bonding.

Each member of our family cherishes our dinner table and what happens around it, and that is something that brings pure joy to my heart. And the importance of that family meal? Profound in so many ways.

If you’ve been striving to set a routine  — nay, a precedent — for your family and make meal times special, understanding the whys and hows is 100% necessary.

We’ll start with the whys.

family bondingThe Importance of Family Mealtime

While the family bonding aspect holds a lot of weight for my family, I was surprised to learn how the time together can influence other aspects of our children’s lives. Numerous studies have proven that gathering together over a meal and engaging in conversation holds many benefits for children, all the way down to performance in school. Research has even shown that the family dinner is just as important as reading books for the language and vocabulary development of young children.

In addition to the impact on literacy, enjoying a little family bonding over the dinner table can also greatly and positively impact our children’s mental health. According to Anne Fishel, Executive Director of the Family Dinner Project, “Regular family dinners are associated with lower rates of depression, and anxiety, and substance abuse, and eating disorders, and tobacco use, and early teenage pregnancy, and higher rates of resilience and higher self esteem.” (Source: Harvard EdCast: The Benefit of Family Mealtime)

It really and truly is SO beneficial for your family to come together, break bread, and talk. Get to know one another. Share about yourselves and what is interesting or what’s boring. You might just be surprised what you learn—be it from your toddler or your tween.

Now for the hows of making that happen.

Put Simply: Just Bring Everyone Together

We love a big production of a home-cooked meal once in awhile, as those also provide an opportunity for family bonding in our household. In reality, the food being served is of lesser importance here. Findings do indicate that children make better nutritional choices and are more likely to try new foods when family dinners happen regularly, but I’m not here to tell you what to eat. We do our fair share of takeout and junk food! Life’s all about balance, right? Coming together at meal time is about so much more than just what’s on the plate.

We call everyone into the kitchen to help out—not always with the cooking—but at the minimum, with the actual act of getting the components to the table. This gives the kids some ownership and pride and we all know that we made it happen together. Even if it’s takeout, everyone still has a responsibility to help execute, whether it be grabbing the paper plates or unpacking the food.

Here are some very simple ways everyone can help out:

  • Filling water glasses
  • Setting the table with silverware and napkins
  • Getting plates either on the table or by the stovetop to fill
  • Setting the “mood” by getting lights on, turning on music, etc.
  • Placing condiments, salt and pepper, or salad dressings on the table

Conversation Makers

Talking together as a family, laughing, and just being together is the main reason we strive to make family mealtime a priority in our house. As our kids have grown, we’ve learned a lot about what makes them open up and talk. I’ll give you a big hint: it’s not “how was your day?” It’s digging a little deeper, making them think about their answers, and, as any good interviewer knows, avoiding yes-or-no questions.

Some of the regular questions we ask our kids at the dinner table are:

  • What was your favorite part of your day? What about that made it your favorite?
  • If you could change one thing that happened today, what would it be?
  • Who did you sit next to at lunch? What did you talk about?
  • What games did you play at recess? Who did you play with?
  • What books did you read (or have read to you) at school? What were the characters doing in the story?
  • Are there any subjects you’re finding difficult in class right now? How can we help you practice or study?
  • What funny jokes did you hear today?

Obviously, these seem like pretty basic questions. But, the questions often lead to deeper conversations and therefore, more of that precious family bonding time! Above all, we each know that when we sit down to the dinner table, we are chatting. There are no electronics, no TV on in the background, no distractions from our conversation. Sometimes we do play soft music, usually opera or instrumental, and talk about what we are listening to as well. (What instrument do you think that is? Can you understand what they are singing about?)

Build-Your-Own Family Bonding Session

For so many of us, regular family dinners just aren’t feasible. Especially with older kids and extra-curriculars, our schedules are packed. This doesn’t have to happen just at dinnertime! It could be a special weekend meal—breakfast, brunch, lunch, late night snacks—whatever you can make work. The point is simply to come together.

We all love to customize our own meals, and this can lead to a lot of discussion in itself. Build-your-own style meals have been such fun in our household, and even get our picky eater involved. The key is to make everyone happy, so ensure you’ve got the favorites and a variety of options covered. Old standbys like build-your-own pizza or tacos work for any meal, too, but thinking outside the box will help make non-traditional family mealtimes special.

Give the family something to look forward to, whenever you can make it work, with one of these fun “build-your-own” options:

  • Omelettes: prep the eggs (an omelette pan is really handy here!) and offer add-ins like spinach, broccoli, peppers, cheddar cheese, pepperjack cheese, cream cheese, bacon, sausage, crab, or shrimp.
  • Brunch Bar: pick up some donuts, bread, fruit, charcuterie items like meats and cheeses, jams and jellies, pickles, juices, coffee, and of course, the always crowd-pleasing chocolate milk.
  • Super Spuds or Loaded Fries: this one is perfect for a lunchtime hangout. Bake potatoes or french fries and provide toppings such as cottage cheese, bacon, broccoli and cheddar sauce, coney sauce with shredded cheddar and onions, or pizza toppings with mozzarella.
  • Midnight Munchies: grab your family’s favorite frozen treats like pizza rolls, mozzarella sticks, onion rings, pigs in blankets, and some favorite snacks and gather for a late-night family bonding session. Throw in a deck of cards or a board game and you’ll have double the fun!

Set an Intentional Routine

If dinner around the table isn’t in the cards every night, start small. Start small, but start. Set the expectation and stick to it, even if it’s just once in awhile. Eventually, after you have had one or two successful months of meetups, maybe you can add another time in that works for everyone. Break the bread together and use it to soak up that family bonding time.

Peer inside your own window sometime—figuratively speaking, of course. How will your family gatherings look years down the road? How do you want them to look? It’s never, ever too late to lay this foundation. It only takes a little intention and planning. Food brings people together, and that is totally a cliche for a reason. You, too, may someday be able to do a perfect impersonation of your child’s favorite teacher after hearing about them every time you gather at the dinner table.

Looking for more family bonding opportunities? Check out How Quarantine Increased Our Family Adventures.

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Jessica Lukenbill
Here at Detroit Mom, I am surrounded by an awesome community of women who have helped me find a place where I feel I truly belong. I’m a proud foodie who keeps crazy busy with cooking and canning, gardening, decorating, craft projects, and more. My husband of 19 years is Jason, and we have Gwenna, 11, and Larson, 7, as well as a silver Lab named Indy. We have lived in New Hudson for almost four years now. Mid Michigan is home for me, but after my husband graduated college, we spent 16 years moving around his home state of Indiana. Just prior to moving back to Michigan, we lived in Southern California for three years, exploring and extreme-adventuring with our kids to every beautiful outdoor location we could find. We are the family that spends more weekends away than at home, and our kids are master-level road-trippers. Most of our summers are spent at the lake, where I'm convinced it's not a proper summer without a dip in the water every day from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Reach out and say hi sometime!


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