Family Dinnertime & Teens

Parent Q&A

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  • Family dinner with teen?

    (9 replies)

    The importance of family dinner is widely touted, and I’m wondering how often parents make this a priority with their teens. I’m a single mom with one teenage boy who is often out and/or not hungry in the evenings. He is not busy with scheduled activities, but he likes to hang out with friends after school and I suspect they hit the juice bar and fast food joints more often than they should. I’m wondering how much I should push coming home for dinner a certain number of times per week or just look for other ways to connect and spend time with him. As it is now, he usually comes home, grunts hello, and shuts himself in his room, so I’m looking for an opening somewhere. Thanks!

    Yes, push. We have dinner almost every day with our teens, and I really feel this makes a difference with each family member connecting with each other. It isn't a love-fest or the Algonquin Round Table, but we talk about the day/week, sometimes current affairs, extended family news, etc.

    It doesn't need to be every day, but you should prioritize dinner with your teen on a regular basis. To me, it helps that your son is not on a confirmed schedule because then there isn't anything important you have to work around. Pick a few days a week that he needs to be home for dinner--you can let him choose but then stick to that schedule. That way, you are not having the conversation about family dinner again and again--it is just what you guys do. Cooking family dinners used to be drudgery for me, but now I try to think of things my kids like (that aren't a lot of prep) and make a point to make them meals they enjoy. Or, I let them do the cooking if it is simple--this way I am also teaching them life skills for their not-too-distant life on their own. (My 16 year old loves to make pizzas with the Trader Joe's dough and sauce.)

    Good Luck!

    What a great question!

    My situation is different as I am married with two teenagers (one post-high-school). However, the family dinner question is universal. I have one teenager who readily joins in family dinner almost every evening, despite keeping a very packed schedule. I have one teenager who began refusing family dinner at the beginning of high school, despite having very little scheduled activities. My suggestion is this: have a conversation with your teen. Acknowledge that your teen is wanting more time with friends and independence from you. Let your teen know how you feel about this (understand yet want to stay connected), and that you'd like to have family dinner together in some way. What would he want to be comfortable with that (a schedule night(s) a week? something more flexible? eat in or dine out? no talk of school at the table? etc.). In other words, let your teen know you'd like to connect, and engage with them on what that might look like.

    Good luck and Bon Appetit!

    Our teen also spent a lot of time in his room, and we [his parents] really missed hanging out with the affectionate chatty kid we used to know. We have always had our dinners and most breakfasts together, and those meals became our primary source for togetherness and conversation. He also got into cooking, which made the whole kitchen time really nice for us. Now that he's left for college, we sure miss those moments!


    Yeah, it's hard! But I do think it's a good thing to strive for. What if you turn it on its head a little and ask him to be in charge of making dinner for the two of you one night a week?  If you feel like you need a reason you could say you're feeling a little overwhelmed at work lately (or with whatever else would make sense that's going on in your life). Or you could say you feel like you're in a rut lately and want to change things up and see how it goes. You could, in exchange, say you'll take care of dinner on maybe two specific days (cooking, frozen pizza, take-out, whatever). Another possibility/addition is to suggest that he invite a friend (or two, depending on your bandwidth for hosting multiple teens!) over for dinner one particular night a week. Getting to know his friends a little better will help you get to know him a little better, so that would be a win. I have definitely found certain kids to be talkers, even if my own kids aren't always, so that could provide a nice insight. Good luck!

    This is tough. Can you limit his spending money for food? Or ask him to cook one night a week - maybe on a Friday he (plus/minus a friend) could cook dinner in your home -spaghetti, pizza on pre-made crust plus salad, hamburgers with all the fixings, mac and cheese and a veggie, and home made root beer floats for dessert. I think you should insist on at least 2 or 3 nights a week or 2 nights plus Sunday brunch. Tell him if he can cook even a few things - will be good with future girlfriend or boyfriend or roommates. Let him help plan menu.

    Chiming in to strongly agree with posters who say make the dinners a priority. You just gotta make it happen. I am also divorced and with one child. He has heavy sports commitments so does eat in the car 1-2 nights a week in the winter ... but we still talk and do our best to have it be close to a "family dinner." We also have dinner with my ex once a week - we just make it work. It's great for everyone and very grounding. We also do a dinner and movie night once a week, which isn't great for conversation, but it's something. We do chat and are together. We also have a simple breakfast together a few mornings a week. And even when it's just the 2 of us, we have a real dinner at least 2 nights a week together at the table. This takes increasing effort but I've found that appealing to his compassion and asking for HELP works - I need your help making dinner. I need your help to sit with me so I'm not lonely at the table. I need help understanding this or that topic that you know so much about. I take a real interest in his day, and I'm also a giant pain - if I don't get some interaction I'll just go into his room, lie down on the bed, and start chatting. He knows that the only way to get rid of me is to have a convo. I don't care if I look goofy or he's grumpy. I ask a million questions. I always say, you're leaving home in a few years and I need all the "you time" I can get. Etc.!

    I think you need to get some perspective. I am sure it is sad that you are not having dinner together. But rather than nag, ask yourself what is going on. Maybe he is using drugs and avoids you so you don't find out. Maybe he is tired of your criticism and avoids you for that reason. I would suggest trying to create positive experiences together in some way, not necessarily dinner. Maybe hike together or play board games together or garden together. Find something you appreciate about what is going on in his life and compliment him. Somehow your relationship has derailed. Try to find out why and do what you can to repair it. 

    My daughter and I (also single mom) had dinner together almost every day, and with extended family almost every week, before she went to college. But she was a willing participant. I'm not sure how to change a teen who is not. I would ask my daughter each Sunday to pick three menus for the week, and one carry-out choice. That solved four dinners right there. Maybe if he has a say in the matter (the menus and which days), he would feel more involved and save room to be hungry to eat at the table with you.

    I'm having similar struggles! We used to regularly have dinner as a family and for a variety of reasons it just doesn't happen like it used to. For us it's mainly due to evening activities, but regardless of the reasons, life doesn't always work out the way we plan and I don't think you should feel badly about it. Your kid is going to be just fine! Maybe just say that you've noticed family dinners haven't been working out lately and you want to make sure there is a time of day when the two of you can connect. Can he think of a better option? Maybe an evening walk?  For us, I've found that breakfast together is possible and a better chance for connecting at the moment than trying to wrestle our schedules to accommodate dinner. Connecting is what matters!

Archived Q&A and Reviews


The newly lost ''dinner hour''

Nov 2011

What just happened to dinner time? When the kids were younger, we always (or almost always) made and shared a nice dinner every night. Somehow, during a recent finals period, the kids said they had too much homework and didn't have time to sit at the table, taking their plates with them and retreating to their rooms. Now, it's almost a nightly thing. They are 16 and 18, a sophomore and senior in high school, and admittedly they have a lot of homework and they're not just on FB (well, at least our sophomore). It really takes the fun out of shopping, planning, and preparing a nice meal. Any suggestions how to lure them back to the table? Do other families share this experience? I miss serving them a proper dinner at the table, I think meals eaten at tables in a calm manner encourage a more healthy relationship with food, not to mention I like seeing them, checking in them, and enjoying the evening meal together after a long hectic day. Any ideas as to how to resume a more regular, functional meal time would be appreciated (or you can just mention that in your household, your teens eat on the run as well and I should accept this as the new normal). There's goes another important ritual

Call a family meeting and state that family dinner is required, unless someone has a meeting or sports practice that means they can't be at the house. My teens have a lot of homework, too, but no one is working so hard that they can't spend 15-20 minutes at the table. It's really important to stand your ground here -- family dinner is a touchstone for the day. Good luck. Anon

I don't know if this would work for you, but we are able to keep on having dinner together in spite of out-of-control homework because our teen does homework at the dinner table rather than in her room. We usually get her to clear her books out of the way and stop working while we all eat, but if necessary she can keep on reading -- sometimes we talk about what she's studying, sometimes she just ignores us but at least we're all together at the table. So basically we make dinner happen around her studying. Not ideal, but o.k. anon

My daughter has also tried to eliminate the family dinner, but we haven't let her. My argument to her is the 15 - 20 minutes it takes to sit down at the table will not impede her homework, and she'll waste at least that much time in the evening any way. About once every two weeks we let her eat in her room, but as a general rule she has to come to the table even if she isn't hungry - but she doesn't have to eat if she doesn't want to. Once she realized we wouldn't concede she got back on schedule, and even quit arguing that she didn't need to eat. Stick to your guns - its worth it

We have kids the same age and I know it's hard to get everyone together for dinner. But they don't have to sit at the table for long; I call my sons to the table when food is ready, they wolf it down in about ten minutes and then we let them leave. So, I don't think it's unreasonable for you to demand that they eat at the table. We do talk at mealtimes but I find that most of my parent/teen conversations take place in the car, no escape unless they leap out of a moving car! Laura

Restoring the ''dinner hour'' is worth a struggle. We had lost ours just as you did, but have mostly resurrected it. We made a big effort, partly because we do academic research into adolescent well-being, and see family meals consistently associated with better teen outcomes (although the relationship may not be causal).

It took full commitment by both parents to re-instate family dinners. We stopped allowing eating except at the table. The most important change was getting our children more involved in cooking and and after-dinner cleanup. We give them a ''point'' for every five minutes spent on housework (including cooking). Once they earn a minimum required number of weekly points (age-based), they can trade points earned in excess of that number for an hourly wage (50 cents per year of age, so a 14-year-old gets $7 an hour, e.g.)

For some reason, cooking caught on with them as a way to earn points and money, and they now do a large share of the cooking in our house. We also instituted a rule that no one leaves the kitchen and dining room until all the cleanup is done. We all pitch in. There was violent protest at the start, but now there's only sporadic grumbling. Having cooked with us (or for us) and set the table, it's almost automatic that they eat with us.

The time they used to save by having us do all the work didn't really go into homework anyway. Facebook and Hulu ate it. Some nights it's still a trial, but both of us think it is worth the investment in their future eating habits and family lives. Love dinner with my family

You don't have to accept the loss of dinner hour, especially if your kids are actually in the house! We have a few nights here and there when we don't eat together, mostly when my kids are coming and going at odd times. Otherwise, they stop what they are doing, eat, visit for a bit, and go back to their work. They are your kids, not your roommates. You can tell them that taking a brief break is actually going to be good for them and that they'll be more refreshed when they return to their studying.

In general, I don't allow my kids to eat in their rooms anymore. They forget dishes, get food in their beds, etc. It is really gross. Your house, your rules mom!

I don't think you should be concerned about what the ''new normal'' is. These are your values, and they are not extreme and you are not out of touch. For me, the dinner hour together is very important, for the same reasons you stated, even though it really only lasts about 20 minutes or so at my house, and it's just my daughter and me (older child off at college and husband works late). We've always done it this way, so I haven't had to un-do the separate dinners in bedrooms routine. Can you express to your kids why you think dinner together is important, in addition to pointing out how much work you put into preparing dinner, and asking that they respect that? (Or even demanding that respect.) Anon

OK, at the risk of sounding harsh - how you do this is, YOU be the PARENT and insist that there be a family dinner together, every night.

When my step-son was a teen, the RULE was that we sat down at the table for dinner, together, EVERY night, and NO TV allowed. Here's what happened: often, he would come home and say, ''I have lots of homework tonight; I can't stick around and talk after dinner tonight'' - implying that he would come to the table, eat with us, then dash back to his room. And yet, 97% of the time that he said this, HE was the one who initiated some discussion about something that happened in school, or something going on in current events, or something that he had learned in school - and we'd all be there, still talking, for 30 minutes or more after dinner. (Also, he almost always wanted to watch some rerun of The Simpsons while we ate - which we also said no to. But on the rare occasions that we had the show on, he'd start a conversation, and the show would run, unwatched, in the background - further proof that despite what he said he wanted, what he really wanted was to connect with us.) Here's the secret about teens - they act like they don't want you all up in their tree, but secretly (unknown even to themselves!!), they want you there. My step-son was shining proof of that, night after night.

Sitting together to eat takes all of 15 or 20 minutes. Please don't let them retreat to their rooms. This should not even be an option (or only a rare one). Your insistence on time together tells them that you care, and that you want to connect with them. (And by the way, what about you and your feelings? You are letting yourself be un-important - not a very good adult role-model.) - they may groan and grumble now, but they will thank you later...

I think the first thing is to ask them why they don't want a family dinner and find out if you can improve the dinner hour to lure them back. I don't know why they don't want to eat dinner with you anymore, but there are several possibilities. You were forcing them to eat food they don't like. You were criticizing them. You were asking too many questions. You were sharing too much or too little about your own life. You were comparing them to each other. People were arguing during dinner.

I would suggest having them do homework in the kitchen. And let them eat dinner while they do their homework. Be the most calm, supportive, loving parent you can. That way you are all together and you get to find out about what they are studying at the moment. It is not exactly the dinner hour you are after, but it may be a good compromise. anon

Hello, I totally sympathize with your situation. I have an 18 y/o boy and 16 y/o girl as well, except my 18 just left for college. we used to have wonderful dinners daily, all four of us: them and my husband. Then my husband got a project out of state and he is home once a month, but we continued to have dinners daily the three of us. Great dinners, I made them drop whatever they were doing, come home from wherever they were (as long as they did not make dinner plans away from home ahead of time), and I was very welcoming of having their friends for dinner. So we continued to enjoy dinners together. Now, with my 18 y/o gone to college and my husband not at home it is just the two of us. My 16 y/o girl, who argues with me all the time and who has no interest in sharing anything with me, and myself. So... I still make an effort for a great dinner daily during school days. No matter how busy, stressed out, ''not hungry'' she is. I cook daily and she knows it is important for us to touch basis at the end of the day. I tell her so. and occasionally if she is in a good mood and I have a delicious dinner plan she will even help me. I ask her. And we play music (hers) and I let her 'lead' me in the kitchen... She mostly likes it if I have a new recipe to follow and to discover together. And those days are a treasure. Then I give her free range over the weekend, (Friday and Saturday). She can eat at her friends, or if she is home we order out or eat left overs, depending on the situation. And we reconvene on Sunday with a good dinner. I would suggest, if you can possibly do it, reinstate your dinner time with your kids, do not allow them to bring food in their room, specially if you have cooked dinner, but even if you order out. Ask them to come to the table, always. no matter how much homework. Once dinner is served it does not take a lot of time to eat, so that should not be an excuse to not sit at the table. Also, I had always call them to set the table, since they were little. Now because of the 'too busy' excuse I set the table and clean up most of the time, but if I see that my daughter is FB or not too busy, she is called to set the table as well as help with the cleaning. I hope you get back to your dinner hour. Still dining with my teen