Eliminating The Family Dinner Table Requirement

We do not require our children to sit at the dinner table with us, though most often they choose to.  Sometimes they watch a YouTube video while at the table, and we ask them to turn down the volume.  Sometimes they read a book, and we remind them not to knock over their water.

Family Dinner Table
Family Dinner Table

Often times though, we chat during dinner. We talk about our day, what’s coming up, and general stuff that is on our minds.  The kids learn a lot during these conversations.

My husband is a geographer, and is interested in world events.  I am interested in behavioral sciences; psychology, sociology, and anthropology.  Our conversations were interesting and enlightening before we had children, and they still are.  Our children ask lots of questions.  If we cannot answer them, they ask Siri and we all learn something.

Sometimes though, while my husband and I eat dinner, Owen is watching TV and Sydney is playing Barbie. Sometimes one of them is sitting with us, and the other is not. Sometimes they both sit with us at different times during the meal.  They come in and out of conversation, and sometimes Kris and I sit at the table for hours chatting.

As I write this piece, I realize that there is a lot that goes into my children mostly choosing to sit with us at the dinner table.  It starts an hour or so before dinner with the questions; “are you guys getting hungry?  Is there anything particular you feel like eating for dinner?”  What they eat and when they eat is mostly up to them.

Some people are saying “I’m not making four dinners.  You’re crazy”.  Truth be told, sometimes we do make 4 dinners. I am not talking about making a Roast, Filet Mignon, Duck L’Orange, and Souffle (first of all, most of us are vegetarian).  Four meals involve a main meal, and some other, easier stuff.  Maybe it is left -overs, cereal, or ever-on-standby-soup.  Maybe we make the kids a cheese quesadilla, or boxed mac and cheese. If they do not like the pesto pasta, we add red sauce instead.  Sometimes dinners are eaten hours apart from each other.

Our kids are set up to want to be at the table whether they are eating or not; there is no pressure to stay seated, eat stuff they do not like, or continue to eat when they are not hungry.   They are welcome to come and go as they please (or not come at all).

Some will say that my kids must be mannerless, rude, disrespectful ogres who have no idea how to interact or eat with others.  This simply is not true.  While we all have things we can work on, my children are none of these things.

As my kids get older, we respectfully share with them what behaviors are acceptable and which are not.  We tell them which foods are appropriate to eat with their fingers, and which require utensils. We remind them that napkins are better to use than shirts, and that ice should not be pulled out of a cup with their fingers.  They are learning.

If we force our children to spend time with us, or eat when their bodies are not hungry, we are creating anger, frustration, and disconnect.  My husband and I want to connect more deeply and authentically with our children, and for them to possess strong self ownership.  We are learning that in order to achieve this, we have to create an atmosphere which supports this.  Eliminating the “Family Dinner Table Requirement” is one way that we accomplish this.



29 Replies to “Eliminating The Family Dinner Table Requirement”

  1. Your approach makes a lot of sense to me. Our boy is just over two years old and we are handling dinner in a similar way. It doesn’t make sense to me to force my kid to do something. Especially since there are enough instances in a day in which circumstances demand a particular behavior from him. I figure that when the circumstance itself demands, it makes sense, but when it’s arbitrary it’s just divisive. And division seems to be directly opposite to the true intimacy that I want to nurture in our family.

  2. I like your approach, but am curious how you handle it if/when your kids don’t eat much during dinner & then complain of being hungry at bed time. Thx.

    • @Jennifer, I try to treat my son the way I would want to be treated. With that in mind, if I got hungry at night, I’d eat. Yes, I would try to snack a little too see if that helped instead of eating a full meal, so I’d try to offer a small snack to my son and see if that filled him up enough to go to bed. But at the end of the day, if a person is hungry, they’re hungry. You can’t really make them hungry at a specific time. Of course, ideally they would eat X number of hours before sleeping, but if it was a regular occurrence for them to not eat much at dinner and then get hungry later, it may just be their body’s natural clock. Maybe try pushing dinner time back an hour to see if they eat more at a later time, keeping them from getting hungry when it’s close to bedtime.

      • Love this response!
        My 12 yr old daughter doesn’t always eat with us and sometimes she doesn’t eat a lot and of course she’ll be hungry later.
        I’ll then make her a snack because, YES if that was me I would make myself a snack!

  3. This is one of those extremely joyful, “someone has put my opinion into the perfect words that I couldn’t manage to articulate myself” moments for me. Thank you.

  4. Great idea! I like the respect you give your children and the common sense approach!

  5. If your children don’t necessarily have a “dinner time”, then how do you go about “bed time”? I do love this idea though. However, we live with my parents and they don’t parent the same way I would like to.

    • Hi Alexa,

      Typically, we all go to bed together. Or, Kris and Owen go to bed, then Sydney and I go to bed. It used to be that Sydney and Kris went to bed at the same time, and then Owen and I. We go when we are tired and done with the day.

      If my kids are not getting enough sleep, Kris and I know that we have to get into bed earlier. We co-sleep, so bedtime has never been difficult as long as we go with them. If my kids were younger and needed to go to bed earlier than me, I would stay with them until the slept, and then get up, or read a book or use my phone while they slept.

      Does that help?

  6. I don’t agree. I respect your choices because all families are different…but I really like the classic family dinner time scenerio. It is that one time a day that we all gather together. It is ritual, it is important, it is family. Parts that are important to me are…setting the table, eating the same meal (with only some exceptions) because I am not a eatery but we are a family, practicing manners at a table sitting with others, how about just being together? There is plenty of time for kids to watch tv or play with barbies. There is only one family dinner hour. Your kids may grow up and feel jealous that their friends have that and they don’t. It is a beautiful and important ritual that is being lost.

    • I somewhat agree. Children, I have noticed, love the sense or routine and ritual. They like predictability and take security in knowing that there is a rhythm to the day. For us, meal times are together time as well. We prepare the meal together, my little 2yo girl is taking part and enjoying understanding where her food comes from and being a part of the process. She comes to the garden with me to pick spinach and peas. Of course sometimes it is a struggle to convince her that she needs to eat now in order to not be hungry later, but as they say, children also need to know that there are (fair and gentle) boundaries. That they are growing into a culture in which there are certain rituals that are observed. I hope that we can keep this ‘together’ time when she is a teenager and starting to develop her own life path, but that the table is always a place that we come back to reconnect 🙂
      I TOTALLY understand that every family is different, but this is important to us.

      • Generalizations don’t work, though. Lots of children are limited by schedules and being forced to eat even when they aren’t hungry just because the clock says so, or because it’s more convenient for us.

        Just because *we* feel like sitting together at a certain time, it doesn’t mean our kids do!

        I enjoy our family dinners because my kids are engaged- they are always there by choice. In no way do I think everyone has to do it this way, but I think it’s useful for us to recognize why we are doing something.

    • And of course, there must be give and take. It’s unreasonable to expect an energetic 2yo to sit still without complaining for half an hour….but so long as the understanding is that at mealtimes, EVERYBODY is together 🙂

      • For you…requiring children to sit at a dinner table when they do not want to is not the relationship I want with my kids. I try to refrain from imposing my own values when it means disconnection!

      • That’s totally fair! And don’t confuse routine (as in pattern) with schedule (as in clock). I just love mealtimes as a means for us all to be together, and to role model with my little one. She sees mummy eating asparagus, so she tries it etc without us making a fuss (not that we ever do). I’m not sure how you organise your meals, but I know that if I grab a snack because I’m hungry RIGHT NOW, it’s bound to not be a well-balanced, full and wholesome meal because I’m so hungry that I couldn’t possibly wait the length of time it takes to prepare something. For us, the predictability and ritual that is involved in making a meal prepares our mind and body for the food that is to come, and pre-empting hunger makes sure that we 1. Spend the time making a wholesome and well-planned meal, and 2. We don’t over eat, or eat something that will fill us up but not give all the nutritional benefits of a full meal. I think the the introduction of the routine (like a bedtime routine e.g bath, stories, a song and bed) syncs our body with the circadium rhythm of the day and the night 🙂 Of course, this is what works for us. The predictability of our daily meals also means that my daughter really looks forward to dada coming home from work not only because it means cuddles and games, but because we can all go out to the garden and work together to prepare something yummy. When we eat and involve her in conversation at the dinner table, she feels like she has her own part and place in the discussion and circle that is hers and hers alone, and we can take the time to acknowledge her participation. She is a part of our community! She may eat a lot or not much at all, but she’s a part of the ceremony and the togetherness. If she doesn’t finish her dinner, we go outside for a play on the trampoline or a walk around the block, and she’ll often come back inside afterwards and eat some more (we leave her dinner on the table just in case). Her tummy is still growing, but the main thing is that routine and ritual is in place so she knows exactly what will happen and when, and in between she can do as she needs to do 🙂

        • Family dinners are lovely. My family so enjoys them. Like you, we leave Sydney’s dinner out until bedtime. She’s a grazer and this works for her.

          I’m not trying to be nit-picky, but I do want to share that my kids also look forward to daddy coming home- and we have no rituals in place (other than hugs and kisses of course!) 🙂

          For me, saying “I love sitting at the table with my family” is different than saying “everyone has to sit together because it’s important to me”. Though I appreciate both of those statements because they are both honest.

          This is just conversation. I’m not being disagreeable. I hope it is coming across as I intend.

          • I appreciate the conversation, Jennifer, and the distinction you are drawing between imposing values and sharing them by living them. Imposing often leads to submission or withdrawal, instead of conscious choosing. As a parent who’s working to undo both submission to and withdrawal from a forceful culture I see the value in the approach you describe. I want the kids to feel welcome and invited to mealtimes, not forced. It’s a process and it’s helpful to discuss with others so we see fully the choices we have before us.

    • Yeah, I like family dinners. My oldest has always enjoyed it as well. It’s a time we can all connect after a busy day. My youngest not so much. But if I gave my daughter the option to choose when and what and where she ate all her meals she would eat dry cereal in my bed while playing a game on a tablet. That doesn’t foster connection at all. I don’t think asking my children to sit and eat is ruining any connection.

  7. Hi 🙂 I love this ~ my son has never been the type of kiddo who likes to eat at the table or in my opinion is even capable of sitting down for a whole entire meal due to his need to move. 😉 So at large family functions such as Thanksgiving or Christmas where the sitting down for a meal is very important to other family members….how do I explain this in a way that doesn’t make it look my child is spoiled rotten but that I’m respecting him as a person??

  8. so what happens in restaurants? is there a certain age you’d want them to sit at the table and behave w/ standard manners?

  9. I actually love sitting together as a family to eat food. We don’t force them to use manners or do other silly things like that, but I think we all like to sit together and share food, often we just all eat from the same plate/pot, and It doesn’t have to be at the dinner table. It’s never in front of the TV, because we don’t have one! Sometimes we eat on a picnic blanket in the living room, or on the balcony or wherever. My little one is a eat and run type of kid, however, even she sits with us for most of the meal before she wanders off 🙂

  10. We have no issues at restaurants at all, my kids are 13, 10, 8 and 2… We homeschool, so family interaction isn’t an issue. Most nights we all eat together, but sometimes we don’t, I won’t wake a little one for anything, and if my girls want to have a picnic in their room or outside, or my son is in the middle of a project and want to have dinner in their own space, I don’t figure it’s worth an argument.

  11. This blogger knows “a lot” is two words, I assume her children have manners ;-p

  12. I don’t agree with this style but I also wasn’t raised this way. I don’t force my children to eat when they are full or if they dont like what we are eating. They also know that they will go hungry until snack time. I want my children to know that in life we do things we may not want to because it is important to some one else I.e. a spouse, your boss or your children. I think I am less strict then my parents but I still instill the same values I was raised with. This is what works for my family same as that is what works for your family. I always say if it isn’t broke don’t fix it. Every family has there own way of doing things and just because I don’t do it the same way doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

  13. This is a fantastic artirhythm I also now know what times she likes to eahank you for sharing. I have a 22 month old. We did baby led weaning whichstarted us off well and our choices until the next mealth eating were centered around the fact that we were very fussy eaters and could both relate many horrid mealtime stories. As expected she is a very fussy eater, and I watched her spit most foods out continuously in the eaalways watching and learning. ys, I always felt happy that she would occasionally try things and as she is still breastfed I feel reassured that she gets nutrients that way too. A month or two ago I started bowing to the pressures of society, to the typical expectations of mealtimes and tried to impose some simple rules, must come to table even if get straight back down, no milk before dinner – but how silly, these werent simple rules to my daughter, they were devestating , and so I paid the ultimate price, because now ‘mealtimes’ were stressful points in time that caused my daughter anxiety and upset – we didnt even need to do anything apart from say dinnertime to start her crying. Shed look at food crying saying no. Id try popping it on her little table incase she wanted to pick at it and shed scream for it to go back into the kitchen. I had lots of advice about what I ‘should do’ and ofcourse what I shouldnt! ‘Dont prepare her anything else’ ‘she will eat when shes hungry’ ‘children dont starve themselves’ ‘she needs to sit at the table’ you should try this with the food’ etc. Children not starving themselves is true to some extent but if they dont have access to foods they like, when they are hungry, then there is the potential that everyones lifes will be miserable while you wait for your child to be so hungry that they will come to the table and force themselves to eat what you want them to. After a particularly horriffic mealtime at the inlaws I said no mOre!! I started a week of preparing meals she liked, made a cupboard with snacks accessible etc and stopped insisting she ate with us. What I noticed was sometimes she wanted to eat when we werent eating because she enjoyed the attention she would get this way, Being able to talk about her food and have me load her spoon and help her quickly – she prefers this when most hungry. When tired she prefers to eat on the sofa. If in the middle of something then she is best left alone to finish what shes doing and will come when ready, often picking a piece and running back to her game. And sometimes she likes to sit and eat with us at the table – we love this, ofcourse we do, but we love it because she has chosen to and so is happy, it creates the best atmosphere and she is more open to trying new things at this point because its all of her own accord. Today is the first day in months that not only did she choose to come to the table, but she ate meat (bolognese) she asked for more, we talked about the funny pasta that was on our plates and not only did she not remove it from her plate (which she was doing with food she didnt like only days ago) but she also tasted a piece. Paying attention to her rhythm i now also know what times she likes to eat. She most often doesnt have breakfast but between 9-11 in the morning eats lots – often having a round of sandwhiches at 10.30, she often then wants no other food until between 4-5. I know that others struggle with this concept and that to some it appears you may not be ‘teaching’ your children how to eat properly and have manners, and that your missing out on family time. Well I see it as choosing to teach my child to eat when hungry, to teach her that there is no need to gorge on food incase its a long time until the next meal. Im teaching her that She doesnt have to be starving to eat either – again to prevent gorgeing on food. Im teaching her that she is in control of her body, that I respect her and that hopefully will teach her to respect others. I am teaching her manners by setting examples, not demanding that she practices them, if she sees me eat a certain way she will see what is appropriate, she doesnt need to be at the table to be watching – children are always watching and learning. I let her have treats in moderation, but not as a treat – if she asks for chocolate then she will look and see if its there – sometimes it is, sometimes it isnt, shes excited when it is but not at all bothered when it isnt, because its no big deal, and ive watched her choose a dry cracker over chocolate many times – im teaching her she can have foods that taste extra nice but in moderation. I show her healthy food, I offer her healthy choices, and I set the example – sometimes I fail but thats ok too, unfortunately thats a side note to the way I view my history with food. One things for sure though, you dont have to be at a table to do all these things, to teach manners, and family time – if mealtimes is the only family time you have then I really feel for you, but I think theres always a point in the day when you can say lets have 10 mins family time and talk about our days, it doesnt need to be at the table. Ofcourse I respect that some like the table and some take well to this but I think more often than not they take well to eating at specific times at tables because of their personalities and because of parents perseverance to make sure they meet set expectations rather than because they are always hungry.