Use Dinnertime to Build Good Family Habits

Josh Spry

Sometimes, the goal of dinnertime seems to be "How can I get my family fed and the kitchen cleaned up as fast as possible with the least amount of crying over how much broccoli counts as ‘just one bite.’" But could it be more? More time together, more conversation, and yes, even more vegetables consumed? While each family is different, we have a few pieces of advice from habit researchers to help you pivot dinnertime away from everyday chore to nourishing family time.

1. Break your traditional roles

Most families see meal time as a chore and assign duties accordingly. Parents plan and cook, everyone eats, and children set the table and clean. But sometimes these family roles lead to boredom and limit creativity. They also isolate family members when each person does one task. Instead, try to create jobs where family members work together on different elements:

•  Let kids help plan meals for the week. This gets them excited for meal time and helps them feel included in this family event.

•  Ask kids to cook a side dish or invite them to help prepare ingredients.

•  If you’re cooking the meal, invite another person into the kitchen and ask them to clean dishes and work spaces as you move between parts of the meal. You might run into each other a bit, but that’s fine when you’re trying to build opportunities to interact as a family. Instead of doing dishes at the end of the meal, ask whoever normally does the dishes to clean while you cook.

        By changing the traditional roles, you can experiment with mealtime and find ways to increase fun and conversation. Once you and your family get used to experimenting, it is exciting to try new things and ensure meal time is always getting better over the years.

2. Change the environment

One of the most important learnings from habit science is that environments matter. Your dinner table should work for your family, not look like an interior design magazine, so don’t be afraid to mix things up. Here are some ideas.

Phones. Phones at the dinner table are a bad idea. If you want family conversation, being distracted by pings or sneaking looks at a screen won’t serve your goal. Not only do we recommend a "no phones at the table" rule, but we also suggest going further and not allowing them in the room. Studies show that if a phone is within sight, it can still be a distracting influence.

An even better solution? Check out the Kitchen Vault on Amazon. Put everyone's phones inside this lockable container and set the timer for a full hour. This puts the whole family in the same boat. It also removes any incentive for finishing dinner early just to get your phone back. With the vault locked, everyone knows that they will have to spend at least an hour without their phone, so they might as well enjoy some family time.

Ditch the decor. The best dinners are the ones you don’t want to end. They trail on into the night. Conversation continues as the family moves from one activity to another. To help this transition, don’t be afraid to mix spaces and make it easier for the family to change the dining table quickly into a reading or activity table. Have books, activities, and homework on or near the table so it’s easy to grab. Encourage your family to transition seamlessly from dinner to an activity. If someone finishes early, encourage them to open a book instead of clearing the table. Your goal is to keep your family interested in spending time together. The dishes can always wait.

3. Put more veggies on the table

Do you have a kid who is afraid of anything green? Or is your picky eater more of the adult variety and you’re surprised they made it this far hating salads? Take this advice from researcher Wendy Wood, PhD., to get anyone in your family eating healthier.

Humans don’t like things that aren’t familiar. So when a child sees broccoli on the table, their brain tells them it’s a threat, and the last thing they want to do is eat it. Instead, just getting used to the idea that vegetables belong on the dinner table can take away the fear. Eventually, a picky eater will try— and eventually enjoy—that once-scary vegetable.

Researchers in the UK put pureed artichokes in front of toddlers. Not surprisingly, the toddlers hardly touched the stuff; on average, the toddlers tried about an ounce. But over the course of two months, the researchers exposed the toddlers to artichokes fifteen more times, and by the end, the toddlers were eating almost five ounces. A 500% increase in vegetable consumption would be a win at any dinner table. The trick? Just present the vegetable as an option. Don’t force “just a bite” or call much attention to it. Just let your picky eater see it on the table and watch your family start to get all their veggies in.

4. Leave the Dishes, Go for a Walk

Sneaking healthy habits in between others—like doing homework after dinner and before dessert—is a powerful way to adopt good behaviors. It's called habit stacking, and was made popular by James Clear in his book Atomic Habits. It can help your family easily work in more exercise.

Studies show that moderate physical exercise after a meal can help digestion, lower blood sugar levels, and decrease inflammation. It’s also a great opportunity to keep the family together in a different environment. So instead of everyone scattering after the meal is over, insist on a quick walk around the neighborhood. Introducing this new habit between things that might be more familiar—walking after dinner and before homework, for instance—can reduce resistance to trying something new. Soon, dinnertime will not only feed your family, but also trigger more exercise and other healthy behaviors you can work in.

5. Change takes time

Studies show that it takes anywhere from five to 60 days to change a habit, depending on how strong it is and what rewards or penalties the habit carries. So give your changes a fair shot and ask for your family’s patience as you build new traditions.

We also encourage you not to worry too much if you skip a day. Habits can be formed even if you miss a day here and there. So don’t give up! If you miss a day, it’s more helpful to be curious: "What happened that today?" Was it raining when you were ready for your after-dinner walk? Then prepare by buying some umbrellas—let the kids choose theirs. Or have a rainy day plan, like jumping jacks in the living room. As hokey as it might sound, just doing something to recognize and commit to the habit is more helpful than promising to be better tomorrow.

Give these changes a try. As one of the strongest family habits, dinnertime is ripe ground for cultivating strong behaviors that build a happy family and lead to good memories.