Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Five Tips to Bring Teens to Family Dinner

One of the most often quoted statistics about family dinner is that it helps keeps teenagers out of trouble. CASA cites that teens that eat dinner together with their families are less likely to do drugs, drink alcohol, and are more likely to do well in school and with social relationships. The thing is it can be hard to start a family dinner tradition when your kids are older. It's not just your work commitments anymore, it's their homework, sports practices, play rehearsals, and of course, social plans, that start to fill up the evening schedule. This is a good reason to start the family dinner habit when they are young. But even if family dinner is new to you, it's well worth it to your kids to start. Here are some things that have worked for us.

  1. Make food they like and make enough of it. The way to a teen’s heart is through his or her stomach. Make the foods that he or she likes and your teen will be motivated to be home. This is a bit of contradiction from the advice I usually give to families with toddlers and other picky eaters, but hopefully by the teenage years, they have settled into a normal range of preferences that the whole family can live with. Still cook only one meal for the family; that's what makes it "family dinner."
  2. Invite over your teen’s friends and eat together as a group. Though this can’t happen every night, having your teen's friends over for a family meal can also be a great incentive to keep your kid at the table. Our experience has been that the kids really appreciate a home-cooked meal (though it could be take-out) and we make a real connection to the kids that our kid hangs out with. I find that even the most rambunctious teenage boys are pretty polite and agreeable when in the family dinner setting. Again, make enough food.
  3. Have a set dinner time and expect your teen to show up, but be flexible. If dinner is at 7pm, then your kid knows when he or she is expected home for dinner. Make it a rule that they have to be there. Then it’s on both of you to make dinner and to be there to eat it. Be flexible though.  If you know ahead of time that sports practice or rehearsals will conflict, set alternate dinnertimes for those nights. If your kid complains that he or she is with friends, invite the friends over! It can be hard to keep to a strict schedule, especially during holidays and the summer, so I’ll let my teen skip out of family dinner occasionally. But I keep mental track to make sure not too many dinners slip by in any given week. Since it is such a solid tradition in our house, I usually just have to say something like, “Hey you’ve missed too many dinners at home.” The phrase, “We are having burgers,” works well too (see Tip #1).
  4. Make your teen cook a meal. This can be a tall order, but valuable for both of you. One family I know with two teens, has each of them responsible for the family meal one night a week. It’s a big help to the parents obviously, and the teens get a big sense of accomplishment from it. If you couple this with the favorite foods idea (back to #1), then your kid can learn how to make his or her favorite dishes.
  1. The dinner table is a no-nagging zone, and no gadgets either. You want your teen to come to the table and you hope there will be some positive conversation and chatting about his or her life or what’s going on with the family in general. It’s not the time to nag or run down a list of complaints or worries. Even if your kid brings up some hot topic (i.e., "My math teacher is such a jerk."), use the time to listen or talk calmly about the issue, not to nag or criticize. (You might reply, "Really? What's up?" and then just listen, stifling your urge to editorialize.)  You want your kid to see the dinner table as a positive part of the day, not a grilling session. If you want to go back to that hot topic, find another time to do it. Also, TV, cell-phone, computers, the newspaper, whether used by the teen or the adult are counter-productive to conversation and interaction. Family dinner time can be as short as 15-20 minutes, but it's very valuable. Everyone can lay off their gadgets and connect the old-fashioned way..


1 comment:

  1. great advice. the no nagging is spot-on since it might feel like the only time you will see them... but it is important that a kid not feel trapped when they sit down to eat. love the flexibility to invite friends to come along -- sharing what there is... and making enough! favorite foods is another great one... but i would suggest adding in something else to stretch the vegetable range... it is also fun to have a "wildly out of the ordinary" night.. like a raw food meal or everything must have eggplant in it or some such that makes a kid curious and interested and gives them story to tell their friends. we found that teens like to decorate their own dessert...just like 4 year olds do! and there is always that breakfast-for-supper trick...

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