Almost everything good I know I learned around the dinner table. It was there I learned Portuguese pork chops, meatloaf, roast beef and lasagna could create joy and connection and that everyone around the Lehndorff dinner table listened to me when I talked.
Frankly, my siblings had to listen. It was part of the deal. Everybody got a turn talking about their day. We learned how to converse and a few basic manners, but these were no staid, formal meals we had to endure. By dessert they turned into a free for all, especially given my Dad’s penchant for puns and my older brother’s ability to raise an eyebrow and cause milk to squirt out of my younger sister’s nose. As we got older, more meals were eaten in front of the tube watching the world implode—war, assassinations, racial violence, war—but we talked, argued and ate together.
When my now 17-year-old son was 6, I was offered a job as a restaurant critic. I knew recreating the archetypal family dinner hour would be hard because I’d have to eat out a lot.
“If I take this job will you go out to eat with me?” I asked him. “There’s one rule: no matter what we’re eating, you have to have a bite of everything.”
Happily, he agreed and we went on to have incredibly diverse meals and chats over the years.
I believe eating together is the best activity parents can do to make a family more resilient and kids stronger, safer and smarter. I could pass along statistics and quotes proving family dinner reduces drug and alcohol use in teens, improves grades, cuts truancy and produces better citizens. But that won’t convince some folks it’s worth the trouble.
Every family is different and many parents secretly shudder at the thought of family dinner. Who can blame them? They had such horrible experiences in the past in which they learned dinner time was when one got yelled at, disciplined or worse, ignored.
There are no secrets to making the ritual part of your life except understanding it’s an ongoing process. Start with a once-a-week shindig, then designate one restaurant meal as a family meal. Let the kids take turns choosing the menu and maybe helping with the cooking and clean-up. Do not serve different dishes for different family members—you are sharing. Ignore the teenage sighs, shrugs and bitter complaints. Step away from your devices.
There are ways to lure the naysayers to the table. First, tell them on dinner night you’ll be serving mac and cheese, tacos or whatever food they love. Have pizza night and not delivered. Buy ready-made pizza or bread dough and have everyone top their own. Make root beer floats one night. Involve them.
Celebrate everyone’s small victories. You will find out information your kids would never divulge under direct inquisition, and they will learn about you.
Recently, my far-flung family gathered to celebrate a birthday, a graduation, an athletic peak, a new job—all of us had good stuff to talk about. I served Thanksgiving leftovers I’d frozen in November and we passed a laptop with Skype around so each of us could say hi to my brother. Nothing could have made me happier.