By Alyssa Chirco
As parents, we have been hearing for years about the many benefits of family dinner. Research shows that children who routinely enjoy meals with their parents have lower rates of substance abuse and depression, a stronger sense of belonging and even a better vocabulary. Unfortunately, non-traditional work schedules, extra-curricular activities and other necessary obligations make routine family dinners all but impossible for some of us to achieve.
If you find yourself struggling to fit family dinners into your nightly schedule, remember that opportunities to establish meaningful connections with your kids exist throughout the course of the day, not just in the evening – and certainly not just at the dinner table. There are plenty of alternative ways for families to connect and spend time together on a regular basis. Here are ten ideas that may work for you.
1. Family Breakfast
Is your entire family at home in the morning? Instead of grabbing Pop Tarts on the go, get up a bit earlier and sit down at the breakfast table together before everyone heads out for the day. Keep in mind that family breakfast does not need to be elaborate or time-consuming. Set up a cereal bar with several dry cereal options and plenty of fresh fruit or search for overnight slow cooker recipes that require minimal effort on busy mornings.
2. Family Dessert
Even if you find yourself reheating dinner when Dad gets home late or eating fast food in the car before soccer practice, the whole family can still indulge in a sweet treat together before everyone turns in for the night. Bake a batch of homemade cookies or buy a container of the family’s favorite ice cream, then gather around the table at 8 or 9 p.m. (depending on your children’s ages and bedtimes, of course) and take turns talking about the highlights of the day.
3. Family Car Trips
Instead of feeling like a taxi service while you chauffeur your children from dance classes to piano lessons, use the opportunity to start a real conversation. Turn off smartphones and gaming devices and break the ice by playing a fun game like Twenty Questions. When the game ends, ask your kids which topics they would like to discuss. Their answers may surprise you.
4. Family Game Night
Whether you play every Friday night or only once a month, a fun-filled family game night is an easy and inexpensive way to bring the whole family together. Pull out a classic board game like Battleship or Parcheesi. Help your preschooler learn colors and numbers with a card game like Uno. Or turn on the Wii or Xbox and get everyone in the competitive spirit with a video game dance-off. Yes, Mom and Dad have to dance too.
5. Family Meetings
When held regularly, family meetings have the power to resolve conflicts, build family unity and foster a sense of autonomy by engaging children of all ages in the family’s decision-making process. Plan for all members of the family to meet at least twice a month to share accomplishments, discuss upcoming plans and brainstorm solutions to problems or concerns within the family.
6. Family Vacation
Leave the stress of daily life behind and spend quality time together by taking a break from the ordinary. Whether you travel to an exotic destination, plan a cheap weekend getaway or spend a few lazy days at home on a family staycation, focus on relaxing with your kids and making happy memories.
7. A Family Journal
When you keep a family journal, every person in the family has a designated place to write notes for other family members to read at their convenience. To get started, purchase a basic notebook and encourage everyone to share and read at regular intervals. You can also keep your family’s journal online.
8. Family FaceTime
Applications like FaceTime and Skype – which allow for face-to-face video calls — are wonderful inventions for parents who travel, work late or do not live in the same home as their kids. They are also a valuable tool for parents of teenagers, since touching base with tech-savvy teens often requires meeting them where they are at – which these days is almost always on a smartphone.
9. One-on-One Time
Children love to receive a parent’s undivided attention, but when siblings stand in the way, they often find it hard to come by. So if Dad works the night shift and cannot be home for family dinner, an occasional father-daughter or father-son “date” would be a wonderful (and much appreciated) way for him to sneak in more quality time with the kids.
10. Sunday Supper
Even if there is only one day of the week that works for everyone, add family dinner to the calendar and honor the commitment. Many families find that cooking a special ‘Sunday Supper’ or splurging on Sunday Brunch at a favorite restaurant is a nice way to bring the whole family together on a day that is typically less busy than the rest.
Your family may never manage to dine together every evening, but you can still keep the spirit of family dinner alive — and reap its many benefits — by finding multiple ways to build strong and loving connections with your kids.