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Your Magic Formula for a Great Life: Family Dinner

The simple and 'regular' aspects of life are often the most powerful.  Family dinner together is one of those things that has the kind of power to transform our lives for the better.  Yet it's also one of the things that has tanked like a rock in the 21st century, with our busy hectic lives.  Here today, however, you'll find a way to recreate that dinner magic for your family - I'll show you the simple 4-step magic formula. 

How long do you think the average dinnertime was 60 years ago?  90 minutes.  Yes, you read that right - that was the average length of dinnertime.  Meaning some were even longer!

Now, how long do you think today's average family dinner is?  12 minutes.  Not even a quarter of an hour! 12 minutes.


The reality.

And how many of us do you think eat together more than 3 times a week? Less than half.  Yet there is tons of evidence that all ages and family members who have regular dinners together do better in almost all areas of life:  toddlers have increased confidence with the routine of dinner, school-aged kids experience improved grades and language skills, adolescents are less likely to have eating disorders, teens are less likely to smoke, parents eat more fruits and veggies leading to greater overall health, and everyone gains by practicing social skills over dinner:  patience, talking through disagreements, forgiving and forgetting, conversation and debate.

The busy-ness of today's world has pushed us into an assembly-line view of life - the family dinner is one of the main casualties.  And yet it's the best way to create a strong and healthy family, the best way to create intimate moments and memories, traditions that you share together, flashes of happiness in the midst of the daily grind.  


The intention of family dinner.

But like everything that is super-valuable and worthwhile, creating regular memorable family moments doesn't happen by itself.  It takes a bit of intention on your part.  But the good news is that it's never too late to start, and doing something is way more important and effective than perfection here.  

And no special tools required - you can begin to create this magic right now, tonight, with whatever you have on hand in the fridge and pantry - you can do it with take-out, bowls of cereal, or pb sandwiches.


No excuses.

Before you start explaining and enumerating all of your excuses why this can't apply to you (I know - I do it too - but it does, and you can, so stop those excuses and just do it).   A few facts to counteract your excuses:

  • "People say they don't have time to cook, yet over the last few years we have found an extra two hours a day for the internet" -- Michael Pollan, author of the omnivore's dilemma
  • On average, kids today spend almost 7.5 hours a day using some form of electronic media.  Surely we can eke out an hour of that for dinner with the family.
  • And if you don't have kids and you're thinking this doesn't apply to you - think again: "A family is a group of people who eat the same thing for dinner" -- Nora Ephron.  Whoever you room with will benefit from eating together.  


The magic formula.

OK, so now that we've gotten your excuses out of the way.  Here's your super-easy, 4-step magic formula to transforming your dinners and thereby supercharging your family:


  1. Find and make an easy and delicious recipe  (I have two super-easy, super-delicious recipe options for you, or choose your own)
  2. Set the atmosphere
  3. Choose a conversation starter
  4. Involve everyone

For amazing ideas every step of the way, check out Laurie David's book "The Family Dinner" - it has tons of great ideas to get you started. 


Step #1. Easy and delicious recipe.  

The optimal way to go here is something super-easy, non-elaborate, that doesn’t stress you out by making it, and yet is something everyone will LOVE.   This will be different for everyone, but let me give you a couple of my stand-bys, and some resources for you to get some additional quick ideas.

One approach is to pick a night and a food theme, and go back to it regularly.  Taco Tuesdays,   or Friday night pasta… or Friday Indian take-out (one of our go-tos)….or Friday Fondue (a current favorite for the colder months). has a ton of ideas along these lines to give you some options.


Step #2.  Set the Atmosphere.  

This one couldn’t be easier – find some candles, put phones away, light the candles, dim the lights, play some music, dine! You can change it up and put fresh flowers as a centerpiece, or have your kids make a centerpiece, etc – again, keep it simple and to whatever you have on hand that makes it just a bit more special than usual.


Step #3.  Conversation starter.  

Now that you’ve got everyone assembled and at the table at one time, eating together (congratulations, nice work!) – make sure you maximize the time together by talking with one another.

One easy approach, which I learned from my sister, is to go around the table and have everyone tell their ‘highs and lows’ from the day.  For example – a ‘high’ could be that I was able to get home in time to catch the last few minutes of tennis practice, and a ‘low’ could be that I rushed out of the house in the AM without my green smoothie… It’s a great, but simple way for everyone to get talking.   It sounds a bit awkward I know – and at first it does feel a little strange if you aren’t used to connecting over dinner – but it is magical, try it and you’ll see what I mean.

For a plethora of additional conversation starter ideas, many of which even have free downloadable printables that you can bring right to the table, check out  The Family Dinner Project Conversation Starters.  You will never run out of conversation ideas again!

Step #4. Involve everyone.  

Everyone at the table should be involved in the process of this dinner. For very little ones, just being at the table and eating together is enough.  For a bit older kids, have them help put out the plates, napkins, silverware.  Have them toss the salad or take some part in the food prep – even just getting stuff out of the fridge for you, or finding a particular ingredient/spice from the pantry.

Establish the one rule of your family dinners – everyone tries at least a bite of everything.

Given that the whole thing about eating together is likely a bit different than usual anyways, establishing this rule for these ‘special’ dinners is your chance to make it stick.

And then of course everyone helps with clean up – as my brother-in-law likes to say “Everybody helps!”  (to a lot of eye rolling, ha).  But clearing plates, putting stuff back in the fridge etc..  is something everyone can help with.   One of my and my sister’s fun family memories is how we used to help dry dishes, and once each of our dish towels was a bit damp, we would snap each other with the towel in a dueling ‘towel war’ (I’m sure your family will find something more constructive, but just to illustrate my point…).  Even now we both eye the dish towels after dinner!


Let the magic happen.  

I’m hoping you’ll find like I did that doing this process every once in awhile surprises you with some new and positive behaviors, which in turn bring some unexpected joy into your days/dinners.    One of my first times resulted in my then-toddler daughter helping to clear the dishes – astonishing.  And my mother-in-law telling about her childhood on their family farm, which my kids loved hearing and learning about – I just love the exchange of knowledge and energy between generations.

In any case, I encourage you to try it at least once – and I’m thinking that you’ll see some magic happen which will entice you to make it a regular part of your weekly life – which will make your family strong, happy, and healthy – you’ll be superstars among us.

Cheers and bon apetit!

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