Dr. Anne Fishel is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School and the Director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is the executive director and co-founder of The Family Dinner Project, a non-profit initiative based at Massachusetts General Hospital, that helps families online and in communities to have better and more frequent family dinners. She has lectured to parents, teachers, and health professionals about the benefits of family meals and written numerous articles about family issues for NPR, The Washington Post, Psychology Today, The Los Angeles Times, PBS, and others.
Her book about family dinners, Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun and Conversation for Happier Families and Healthier Kids, is available through Amazon. She is a co-author with The Family Dinner Project team of Eat, Laugh, Talk: The Family Dinner Playbook.
Of any age group, teens may have the most to gain from eating dinner with their families. Numerous studies over the last 25 years reveal that dinners can protect teens from engaging in a host of risky behaviors: smoking, drinking, getting pregnant, developing an eating disorder, and using drugs. Teens who dine with their families also report experiencing less overall stress, feeling more known by their parents, and having better relationships with them (CASA, 2012).
Why do family dinners offer such benefits? The simplest answer is that dinner is a reliable occasion for teens to feel connected to their parents. It is this connection that provides the real seat belt on the potholed road of adolescence.
Dinnertime also creates the opportunity for parents to check in and monitor their teens’ behavior without putting their kids on the hot seat. Instead, questions about their day are softened by answering while enjoying a delicious meal, and by hearing about everyone else’s funny tales of the day.
The really good news is that when teenagers are asked to list the activities they most enjoy, family dinner is consistently ranked high on that list.
That said, teens can be sulky, irritable, prickly and challenging, and may not make the easiest dinner companions. Not only that, but their schedules may seem too busy to fit in regular dinners, what with sports practices, after school jobs, hours of homework, and heavy social media upkeep.
So, how can parents make dinner compelling for adolescents, and enjoyable for everyone else in the family? Showing up at the dinner table with certain parental attitudes may help: showing interest in your kids’ new discoveries (e.g. music, friends, favorite athletes, video games, etc.) without judging them; tolerating strong expressions of feelings; and talking in a more honest and self-disclosing way about your own lives, if these disclosures are relevant to your kids’ struggles.
Adolescence is also a time when kids are figuring out who they are and how they want to be similar to and different from their parents, and they have the brainpower now to engage in philosophical and abstract thought. It is no wonder, then, that this is a time when kids may declare that they have food preferences that differ from their parents. Consider the New Yorker cartoon of two teenage girls talking. One says to the other: “I started to be a vegetarian for health reasons, now it’s just to annoy!” But this kind of questioning of parental values can also lead to rich conversations about things that matter.
How to Keep Dinner as Lively as Your Teenagers
- Agree that dinner will be off limits for discussing conflicts—no talk about homework, or whose turn it is to take out the trash, or a recent “D” on a math quiz, or how late the curfew should be on Friday night.
- If possible, parents as well as teens should make dinner a technology-free zone. If this isn’t possible, then negotiate rules that everyone can agree to, such as: ‘We’ll only use our phones to resolve factual disagreements that come up at dinner’ or will only use it to play a game like Selfie Hot Potato.
- If scheduling conflicts interfere with nightly dinners, consider having a healthy after-dinner, take-a-break-from-homework snack. This might be frozen yogurt with berries, a bowl of soup, or cheese and crackers.
- Initiate conversations about subjects that matter to you and to your children. Did you read an article in the newspaper today that confused, upset, or delighted you? Talk about it and ask for your kids’ reactions. Check out our Conversation of the Week blog for more ideas.
- Offer to make a new meal, based on your teen’s interests—if they are studying Chinese history or Indian literature, check out www.epicurious.com and search for recipes by country. Even better, make that new meal with your child so that they can teach you something about another culture they know more about than you do.
- Invite your kid to make a course or part of the meal, particularly something fairly quick (but special and dramatic) that will elicit “oohs” and “ah”s from the rest of the family. Popovers, fruit smoothies, or a vegetable or fruit no one has ever tried before (anyone for dragon fruit?) all do the trick.
- Speak about your own experiences of the day in a way that is honest and self-disclosing, perhaps revealing something that was embarrassing or challenging. Or, repeat a joke that you heard at work.
- Ask your teen to choose music for you to listen to during dinner. On other nights, you might play your own music, or play the music that you listened to when you were your child’s age. Both will give you something to talk about that may be of great interest to your teen.
- Since adolescence is a time of increased exploration, buy cookbooks when you travel to new places, ask for recipes at restaurants, or from the parents of your child’s friends. Some of my favorite recipes are ones I’ve requested from a Chinese mother raised in Hawaii whose cooking my son raved about whenever he visited.
Some of these suggestions may fall flat like a pancake. Others may get you only a few more minutes of conversation at the table. Still others may not work the first few times you try them. When it comes to parenting teens, persistence pays off, so don’t let a little pushback or negativity keep you from trying again.
Watch the recording of Dr. Fishel’s Why Family Meals Matter webinar!
To watch for free, just register here: tinyurl.com/FamilyMealsMatter
The Northland Coalition Prevention Network and Parent Up recently hosted The Family Dinner Project for an engaging webinar for parents and caregivers on the benefits of family meals! Anyone can view a recording of the webinar by registering at tinyurl.com/FamilyMealsMatter. Learn about the academic, mental health and nutritional benefits of family meals. Dr. Fishel discusses mealtime challenges and great strategies to overcome obstacles. She motivates and empowers caring adults with games to play at the table that will spark conversation as well as tips to get kids to give you more than just a one-word answer.