The reality for many people is more like meatloaf hitting the fan. Unpredictable work schedules, after-school sports practices, last-minute grocery trips, fidgety children and distracting screens can make family dinners something to dread rather than look forward to.
And so, a lot of people do sit down for dinner as a family. But that doesn’t mean it’s always an enjoyable experience. In a recent Houzz poll, more than 1,200 users said they eat dinner as a family every night versus about 350 who said they didn’t. It would take a different poll to determine whether the ones who do sit down are actually having positive experiences, or if the ones who don’t sit down are doing so to avoid an unpleasant time.
We gathered tips from Goldfarb, as well as from Houzz users, to help you make family dinners more successful and enjoyable, which matters more than what’s on the plate. “I’m a huge believer in making the dinner table a positive, stress-free zone,” she says.
Goldfarb, a mother of two, recommends taking time on the weekend to plan dinners for the rest of the week. Using meal planners and keeping recipes simple help cut down on the chaos.
It seems to work for Houzz user tooky58. “We even use real napkins every night. It took my husband awhile to get used to it but now he loves it! Plus, our paper towels last so much longer.”
But whatever you do, be sure to keep it casual. You don’t want family members feeling as though they need to rent a tuxedo for dinner on a Tuesday night at home.
It’s OK to make exceptions, she adds, such as eating dinner together as a family while watching big events like the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards, or having a pizza-and-popcorn movie night on the weekend.
4. Get everyone involved. If possible, have each family member be responsible for planning and cooking a meal one night a week. Encourage kids to smell spices and choose which one to add to the recipe. “The more they feel like they have control, the more likely they are to eat the food,” Goldfarb says.
6. Get talking. Talk about your day, and make sure to give each family member a turn. Don’t fall into the trap of talking just with your spouse. Involve everyone. If conversation runs out, consider playing a word game. Goldfarb likes starting a story and then going around the table allowing each person to add a word to the tale.
I like to play an interview game with my kids, who are 5 and 3. Each person gets a turn being the interviewee, and we all get to ask the interviewee personal questions like: “What’s your favorite color?” “Who’s your best friend?” “What’s your favorite food?” “What’s your favorite book?” And so on. You’d be amazed at how their little faces light up when they get to talk about themselves. And with young kids, you can repeat this game almost every night, as their answers always seem to change.
Avoid calling out someone for eating too fast, too slow or not enough. Don’t berate a child for not eating his or her broccoli. All this can have a negative impact on the people at the table. If children start to dread dinner with the family every night because they know they will be yelled at for not eating their vegetables, or they’ll be harangued about college applications, then it’s not going to be a positive experience.
The same goes for the kids too. Don’t allow kids to yuck your yum. “For me, complaining about the food is a no-go,” Goldfarb says. “It’s important to express gratitude even if it’s not your favorite thing.”
She says she taught her kids at an early age to say, “I know you worked hard on this, Mom, but it’s not my favorite.”
It’s OK to reinforce manners, such as not talking with your mouth full of food, but Goldfarb stresses that it shouldn’t turn into a lecture. The point is to keep things positive. “The experience is more important than manners,” she says.
9. Keep meals simple. Don’t try to be the next Top Chef. “I’ve found that the more ingredients there are, the more it’s less likely everyone will eat it and it be a success,” Goldfarb says.
One of her favorite recipes is ravioli soup with grated zucchini and spinach (see recipe below). “It takes 10 minutes, and you can serve it with fruit,” she says.
Ravioli Soup With Grated Zucchini and Spinach
Makes about four 2-cup servings
- One small can chicken broth (about 15 ounces)
- One package refrigerated cheese ravioli (about 10 ounces or 20 small ravioli)
- One zucchini or yellow squash (8 to 10 ounces)
- 2 ounces baby spinach (about 2 cups)
- One-quarter cup shredded Parmesan cheese, or to taste
1. Pour the broth in a medium or large stockpot over high heat. Fill the can with water (or use 2 cups water) and add the water to the pot. Cover and bring to a boil.
2. Add the ravioli to the pot, cover and return to a boil, then uncover and cook for three minutes, stirring occasionally.
3. Meanwhile, grate the zucchini with a cheese grater. When the pasta is a minute from being fully cooked, stir the zucchini and the spinach into the soup and cook it for one or two more minutes, until the spinach is wilted and the zucchini is tender.
4. Divide the soup into four bowls. Season each bowl to taste with Parmesan cheese and pepper.
Tip: The zucchini will be less flimsy and easier to grate if you cut it in half the short way first.
Flavor booster: Top the soup with freshly grated aged Parmesan cheese, and season it with freshly ground black pepper.