Family Dinners Fuel Healthier Kids

I wrote this post as a participant in the Eat Better, Eat Together Balancing Act blog carnival hosted by MealsMatter and Dairy Council of California to share ways families everywhere can make time for family meals that include foods from all the food groups. A list of other registered dietitians and moms who are participating in the Balancing Act blog carnival can be found at MealsMatter.

We are only as happy as our least happy child. I’m not sure who coined that saying, but I use it all the time. Think about that for a moment. If you have an unhappy child, chances are it is difficult for you to enjoy the day (or sometimes the year). If a child doesn’t feel well physically, how can he or she be completely happy? Good nutrition is essential to health. Having a supportive family provides comfort and security, which is necessary for happiness. Family dinners are a great way to show children the importance of health and well being.

This week, start planning family dinners. Laurie David (the ex-wife of Larry David, co-creator of “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) wrote an article titled ”Family Dinner After Divorce”, excerpted from her book ”The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal At a Time”. Before their divorce, the David’s shared family dinners together (including the ritual once a week “take out” night). Knowing how important family dinners are (and how they improve communication between parents and children), this strong family continued the tradition, even after divorce. Of course this was awkward and challenging at first, but after a while, the family dinner tradition helped heal the entire family as they went through the crisis of divorce. Unusual? Yes. But what a great concept . . . continuing to communicate with children while eating healthy traditional family meals.

Comfort Food

Eating together as a family is not always easy due to our busy schedules. But eating as a family unit is truly comforting for toddlers as well as teens. Dining together gives kids comfort and predictability in their day. Of course, there is no established definition of a family! Some families have one parent, while others have extended families living under the same roof. But the rule is the same. Children and their parents or caregivers will all benefit from preparing and eating meals together.

Reasons, Tips and Tricks

Teenagers who are peer influenced in so many ways (including food choices) will surely benefit from family dinners. Set an example by offering healthy choices at dinner (lean protein such as fish and poultry along with vegetables and tasty grains such as quinoa, cous cous or whole wheat pasta). Offer low fat milk or almond milk with meals and snacks. Ask your children to help you design “homemade smoothies”, with low fat yogurt, fruit and nut butters.  Developing smoothie recipes at home can help save a lot of money. Additionally, putting together an ingredient list with a tween or teenager will encourage even the most fussy eater to enjoy a delicious and nutritious snack that includes his or her specific food preferences. Now that’s a winning combination of family, food and fun!

Discussing dinners in advance and offering a variety of foods may also help even the pickiest child try new foods. Keep mealtime calm. It’s not a time for arguing with your children. Use these precious moments as a time to reconnect with your child and “listen” to the events of the day.

The key to making a family dinner is to plan! Although you might not be able to have a family dinner every night, it’s important to plan several nights each week that you can eat as a family unit. Look at your schedules. If a child has a sport or after school activity several times each week, eat a little later. Wait for them to come home! If you’re working late, check out some healthy crock pot recipes, or cook a bit more on the weekends and freeze meals in individual portions. If you don’t have time to food shop, check out local supermarket food delivery services. One thing is certain, if you don’t plan your dinners, they won’t magically happen!

Ask your family members to help with the food planning and preparation process. Younger children tend to eat better when they help with simple meal preparation tasks like setting the table or stirring a sauce. Teenagers can slice and dice vegetables, collect ingredients from around the kitchen and even prepare a side dish. All children appreciate being involved in the process (including cleaning up). Praise their efforts! Learning to cook healthy meals at an early age can improve long term cooking skills and set the stage for a healthier lifestyle.

Sitting down together for family meals will help you and your children eat better. At the same time, it’s a necessary time for family togetherness. As a busy parent or care giver, don’t “serve” your family while they eat. Everyone can participate with the meal preparation in some way. Sitting down together as a unit gives children something comforting and stable to look forward to at the end of the day. Your kids are looking to YOU for direction. Make family meals the most rewarding part of your day. What can you do TODAY to start enjoying more family meals at home? Please share your thoughts and comments so we can continue this discussion.

Don’t stop here! Other bloggers share their stories and tips on how they juggle the balancing act of getting a well-balanced meal on the table!

  1. 10 Commandments for Guilt-Free Feeding – Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD
  2. Beating the Lunch Box Blues – Katie Sullivan Morford, MS, RD
  3. Dinner Time – Michelle Rowe, RN and Health Educator
  4. Eat Better, Eat Together– Jessica Fishman Levinson, MS, RD, CDN
  5. Family Dinners Fuel Healthier Kids – Susan Weiner, RD, MS, CDE, CDN
  6. Families that Cook Together Eat Together – Kia Robertson
  7. Making Time for Family Meals: How I’ve Earned My “RDH” – Trina Robertson, MS, RD
  8. Meal Planning: Taking the Stress Out of the ‘What’s for Dinner’– Laura Everage
  9. Pressed for Time? Moms Know Best: Tips for Getting Food on the Table – FAST! – Samantha Lewandowski, MS, RD, LDN
  10. Roasted Cinnamon Apple Oatmeal – Cheri Liefeld
  11. Sunday Night Family Dinner, In the Dining Room – Jill Castle, MS, RD, LDN 
  12. The Balancing Act – Ann Dunaway Teh, MS, RD, LD
  13. The Power of Family Meal Time & How to Squeeze It In! – Bridget Swinney MS, RD, LD
  14. The Truth About Family Dinner – Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD
  15. Toughen up: Give Two Choices for Dinner – Take it or Leave it! – Glenda Gourley


  1. I have never heard the phrase We are only as happy as our least happy child but it’s now one of my favorites because it’s so true!!! I agree that in order to make family meals happen it requires planning!!! Great tips!

    • Thanks so much for your comment. Isn’t it true? If you have an unhappy child, it’s impossible to be truly happy. A little planning to make family dinners a regular occurance goes a very long way.

  2. Susan, thank you for a great blog post with great tips for staying the course! I recently read some research out of the UK suggesting that parent role modeling- eating a variety of foods during family meals- actualy influenced the eating habits of children and reduced the likelihood of “fussy eaters.” Family meals take some effort, but I believe it’s well worth it in the long run! I hope other readers take the time to start or strengthen a commitment to family meals by taking the EatBetter, Eat Together family meal pledge on Facebook!

    • Dear Sara,
      Thanks so much for the comment! Everything in life that is worth while requires at least some effort. Family meals are well worth the effort in the long run.

    • Dear Jill,
      Thanks so much for reading the post. And I agree! We need to pay attention to teenagers. Good nutrition goes a long way during those stressful years.
      Thanks again,

    • Thanks so much Maryann! I have my mom (who is 84) over for dinner every Sunday night. It’s the best night of the week (especially when she brings one of her signature dishes).
      Thanks again,

  3. Nicely written Susan. I like your focus on planning and prioritizing the family meal. I was talking with my husband who did not grow up with family meals and he is so happy we sit around the table with our children most nights of the week.

    • Dear Trina,
      Thanks for the comment. How wonderful that your family makes meal time a priority. With our busy schedules, it’s so very important to have our children grow up with family meals.
      Keep the tradition going!

  4. […] Mothers who have battled weight for most of their lives often become critical of their daughters bodies. I work with many families where a young girl (with an overweight mother) tends to either eat large amounts of food in private, or  starve themselves to achieve an unrealistic weight goal. Has anyone ever commented on your weight? Have you reacted in a negative way  such as severely restricting your food intake or binging? This behavior is a common occurrence which needs to be addressed both in the media and at our dinner tables. […]

Leave a Reply