Family Meals Falling By the Wayside? Time for The Family Dinner Project

Family Meals Falling By the Wayside? Time for The Family Dinner Project

Family members too crazy-busy to sit down and eat together? The Family Dinner Project may help turn things around.

The Cambridge-based initiative describes itself as “a growing movement of food, fun and conversation about things that matter.” Based in the Project Zero offices at Harvard University, The Family Dinner Project offers free resources to help families revive the magic of the family meal.

Family dinners have been declining over the past few decades, but the Project says they are more crucial than ever.

“Dinner is a time to relax, recharge, laugh, tell stories and catch up on the day’s ups and downs, while developing a sense of who you are as a family,” founding member Anne Fishel, PhD, a family therapist and associate clinical psychology professor at Harvard Medical School, has explained. “I don’t think people realize how big a punch that time around the table packs.”

The Family Dinner Project’s purpose “is to create a warm connection among family members,”  Fishel said.

But before you start worrying about what to cook, realize The Family Dinner Project is there to support you, whether you’d rather have family dinners, breakfasts, picnics, or just a weekly potluck.

The benefits don’t come from a well-cooked lasagna; they come from creating a warm atmosphere at the table,” Fishel told Stress Health. “Even one dinner a week can be hugely positive if the atmosphere is warm and engaging.”

And everyone doesn’t have to be there “you could have one parent at the table, or perhaps an aunt or Grandpa,” she added. “You might have family breakfasts together instead of dinner, or take a snack break in the evening where parents and kids could come together and talk over hot chocolate. It should just be something that’s predictable and enjoyable.”

The power of ritual

For kids with trauma from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such anchoring rituals are especially important. “It’s something that children can count on,” Fishel said.  “Dinner, which is set aside from the frenzy and busyness of everyday life, can provide a reliable time and place to reconnect. In its repetitive predictability, dinners offer stability, perhaps especially for children with ACEs.”  

Fishel adds that “parents who have experienced ACES sometimes find being able to provide their kids with something that is stable and nurturing — and doable and different from their own childhood dinners — is a very concrete way to say “my family is different from the ones I grew up in. I don’t yell at my children, I listen to them, we tell stories about our day, they know I love and care about them—they can count on me and I can count on my self to show up each day to do this.” (Read more of our interview with Dr. Fishel here.)

Family dinners not only foster a sense of belonging and security, but kids who eat five or more meals a week with their families are happier and less stressed and do better at school, according to recent studies. (Another plus: they eat more fruits and veggies, too).

And the benefits don’t stop there. “Twenty-five years of research have shown family dinners are good for the bodies, brain, spirit and health of family members,” says Fishel. “Children who eat family dinners are healthier, have more self-esteem, and are less likely to be anxious or depressed. They also have a lower risk of eating disorders, smoking, substance abuse and obesity.”

Hungry for connection

The Family Dinner Project has struck a deep chord in families across the United States and in countries from Australia, China, and Greece  to Poland, the United Kingdom, the Philippines, and Mexico. “Fewer than half of American families eat dinner together daily, and people are hungry for face-to-face connection,” said Fishel.  “We’ve had more than a million people visit the site, with families joining in from across the political spectrum.”

The organization has partnered with Blue Star Families to offer community dinners for military families where they share their own solutions to common challenges, such as being a solo parent, not having time to make dinner, having picky eaters, or experiencing tension and conflict at the table. It’s also reached thousands of other families by hosting community dinners at clinics, libraries and homeless shelters. Other partners include Casa Columbia, Common Sense Media, New York City’s  92nd Street Y, the Mayo Clinic, No Kid Hungry and, of course, families of all types across the country — including this New York family formerly plagued by blow-ups at dinner.

“Family dinners show us that people who love each other can still disagree with each other and squabble and even stalk off for a while,” says Bob Sege, MD, a pediatrician and professor of medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine who studies ACEs and resilience.

“I always tell my patients that family dinners are where we check in about all the little mundane things in life — you know, ‘Johnny pulled my hair’ and so on– so when real stuff happens you know how to communicate,” Sege says. “No matter what it is, you can handle it because you’ve been checking in with each other every day.”

The free resources available at The Family Dinner Project include newsletters, dinner conversation starters and games, family stories, a 4-week online program for better family dinners and information on starting a parenting group or a regular community dinner. The Project is also working on a new website that will let families set goals and track them online.