Why Family Dinners Matter, Even If They Break The Mold

"Sharing a roast chicken won’t magically transform parent-child relationships."

For years, society has promoted the benefits of traditional family dinners with little tolerance for variation. If you're not sitting around the kitchen table with every member of your immediate family, then you're doing something wrong. Yet, while numerous studies prove that family dinners aid vocabulary development in young children and reduce high-risk behaviors in teenagers, breaking the mold doesn't necessarily mean you're doing something wrong. As former "Survivor" contestant Chrissy Hofbeck's recent tweet suggests, non-traditional family dinners might actually be more positive and beneficial for some families.

Hofbeck's followers, of course, were quick to share their own thoughts on family dinners, establishing that the only right way to execute such nightly meals effectively lies with each family's ability to find the approach that's right for them. While many also choose to laugh alongside their family as they watch their favorite TV program, others find that the traditional sit-down setting works best.

While there are countless studies that tout the harm caused by eating dinner in front of the television, Anne Fishel, co-founder of The Family Dinner Project, professor at Harvard Medical School, and the author of Home for Dinner, emphasizes that the real power of dinners lies in their interpersonal quality. "If family members sit in stony silence, if parents yell at each other, or scold their kids, family dinner won't confer positive benefits. Sharing a roast chicken won't magically transform parent-child relationships," Fishel writes in The Washington Post. "But, dinner may be the one time of the day when a parent and child can share a positive experience – a well-cooked meal, a joke, or a story – and these small moments can gain momentum to create stronger connections away from the table.

"There's a big difference between deciding to watch TV during dinner and just kind of letting it happen," Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, host of the "Savvy Psychologist" podcast, tells Joy Manning of TODAY. While it's true that mealtime screen time can put you at risk for mindless eating and missed opportunities for communication, Manning adds, Hendriksen stresses that it's up to individuals to choose what works best for them. "If it buys you more than it costs you, it's healthiest to give yourself full permission and enjoy," she says.

Society's distinctions as to what's appropriate and what's not might be based on good intentions, but not everyone will fit inside this designated bubble – and no one should feel ashamed if they don't. As Anne Wolfe Postic writes for Kitchn, over the years, her family has developed a penchant for watching sports while eating dinner. "I like having my family around the table and I like hearing them talk," she explains. "If sports open up the floor to a conversation, I don't see how watching a game while we eat is any better or worse than any other conversational gambit."

One commenter, who goes by Lindsay!, adds: "My family always had the news on at dinner. We ate early and my parents wanted to know what was going on in the world b/c they were at work all day. It never seemed to take away from anything, and like you with sports, it started conversations. Now, my boyfriend and I watch the news while we eat dinner and we love it. It forces us to bounce thoughts and ideas off of each other about important issues. This may change once kids are in the picture, b/c he came from a 'formal dinnertime' family, but who knows."

No matter what science dictates, no one can decide what's best for your family except you and your family. Choose the approach that allows you all to enjoy each other's company to the fullest extent. Only then will everyone feel truly satisfied with their meal.

Cover image via Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

GET SOME POSITIVITY IN YOUR INBOX

Subscribe to our newsletter and get the latest news and exclusive updates.