I’ve always been a big believer in having dinner as a family.
Both research and personal experience tell me that eating together most evenings benefits kids and families.
So I made it a point to cook something every night, usually something healthy. We sat together without phones and talked about our days.
Of course, it was never idyllic, what with reminding about basic manners, insisting that the kids at least try their “’ no, thank you’ bite” of whatever we were eating, and all the other repetitive tasks involved with teaching young humans to be civilized.
But overall, dinner together was good.
Then almost overnight, my sweet littles became tweens and then teens. Their schedules got fuller, and finding time to eat together got harder and harder.
I’d review the week’s schedule and find those rare windows when all or most of us would be around to share a meal. And then, because these occasions were rarer these days, I’d plan something special to eat that I thought we would all enjoy.
Unfortunately, schedules weren’t the only things interfering with our family dinners.
My teens complained loudly whenever I “cooked from a recipe,”—meaning I made something new. They argued about the phone ban and kept trying to text under the table. My husband rushed through a meal and started grabbing dessert before I was done with dinner.
This all made me feel like we weren’t in this as a family.
I told them why it bothered me, but they kept doing it, which made me feel disrespected.
Long story short, family dinner was getting unpleasant.
You can’t force your teens to enjoy family time
Then one day, I was having lunch with my friend Julie and told her about all my family dinner frustrations. She wisely suggested that maybe it was time that I try something else.
“What if you just stopped making dinner for your family? If you stopped pushing for it, what would happen?”
We agreed it wouldn’t be helpful for me to stop making dinner in a pissy, loud way; that would give them more to push back against.
Instead, I would stop being “Mom who makes dinner for her family” and start being “woman who cooks and enjoys her own meal.”
At a minimum, I’d have a more pleasant evening. Worth a try!
Putting yourself first is a good way to model self-care for your teens
The next time I went to the grocery store, I bought the usual breakfast and lunch foods and random healthy snacks. There’s always plenty to eat in our house.
But I bought single servings of dinner foods that I like, regardless of what anyone else liked.
That first night dinnertime rolled around, and I didn’t ask anyone to set the table; I didn’t give the usual 10-minute warning.
I seared my scallops, cooked my veggies, poured myself a glass of wine (not my standard procedure on a weeknight), and sat down at the table with a magazine (also not standard procedure).
It was very nice. Dare I say the most pleasant meal I had in awhile
The kids and my husband, of course, asked what was up.
I politely told them it had become clear to me that although I value family dinners, they didn’t seem to, and I didn’t want to fight about it anymore.
This earned a few surprised glances, followed by “What are we supposed to eat?”
“Whatever you like,” I replied nonchalantly.
“Awesome! Mac and cheese!” Which they made while I savored my meal.
The next night, I did much the same thing.
With somewhat less enthusiasm, they made more mac and cheese or whatever. (I didn’t pay much attention.) Their puzzled glances now had a note of concern.
But I sipped my wine and enjoyed my magazine.
On the third night, I happily settled myself with my grown-up meal for one.
But my kids and husband were ready to talk.
“So, is this, like, going to be a thing now?” they asked. “Aren’t we ever going to have dinner together?”
I reprised my riff about it being a lot of work to make dinner for everyone and me being unwilling to force them to eat together if they didn’t want to.
“But we do want to!” they said is almost uniform desperation.
We need to re-set boundaries for behavior during the teen years
So we talked about what it would mean if I went back to making dinner most nights.
They agreed that maybe it wasn’t so awful to try new recipes sometimes and (grudgingly) agreed not to use devices under the table.
My husband became much better about waiting for everyone to be done before he went looking for dessert.
I won’t pretend dinners were always sunshine and roses after that. Stuff still came up, but much less often.
The important thing is that we were all together, whenever we could make it happen, sharing a meal. And now everyone was really present, not because I was making them, but because they realized it meant something to them too.
Six tips to a positive family meal experience during the teen years
Sports, activities, friends, jobs, studying. Today’s teens are busier than ever, so sometimes you can’t all eat together every night. Try to be flexible with your mealtimes and don’t take it personally if your teen can’t make it. Instead, make a point to spend quality time with your teens around meals. For example, if your teen rolls it at 9 p.m. after work, share a dessert. If your weeknights are full because of sports, switch to family brunch. The point is connection, not a structured event.
Involve teenagers in meal planning.
Learning to shop for and cook a few simple meals is an important life skill. Allow (and actually insist) that teenagers have a say in the menu and involve them in meal planning. Give them options and let them choose their favorite dishes or even take turns cooking. This not only gives them a sense of responsibility but also increases their interest in the meal. You may also like to read: 15 Easy Recipes for Teens to Help Them Learn to Cook
Make it fun
Encourage active participation: Engage teenagers in meaningful conversations by asking open-ended questions. Show genuine interest in their lives, friends, hobbies, and school experiences. Encourage them to share their opinions and listen attentively when they speak. Not sure where to start? We like these conversation starters for families. Remember to respect that teenagers might have different interests, opinions, and schedules. Avoid forcing them to participate in discussions they’re not comfortable with or talking about topics they’re uninterested in. Let them know that their presence and contribution are valued, regardless of their level of participation.
Set boundaries for appropriate family meal behavior
If you don’t set the tone and expectations than they will. Make sure you provide clear rules as to what the rules are for family meal time. This can include no phones or tech at the table, waiting to leave until everyone is finished, or clean up guidelines. You can’t force them to enjoy it, but if everyone goes in knowing what to expect, it can go a little smoother.
Keep the meal positive by focusing on the positives going on in each other’s lives. It’s not the time to talk about a bad grade or the fact that they didn’t clean their room. Remember, family meal time is supposed to be about connection. Instead, take the time to praise your teen on any achievement, big or small, whether that is earning a passing grade on a tough test, finishing a project, or an act of kindness you saw them do.
Be what you want to see
Modeling is the most effective way to show what you are expecting to see. Respectful communication starts with active listening and open communication. Engage in positive and constructive discussions and avoid arguments or confrontations that could ruin family time.
Are you in the thick of raising your tweens and teens? You may like this book by Whitney Fleming, the co-owner of Parenting Teens & Tweens: Loving Hard When They’re Hard to Love: Essays about Raising Teens in Today’s Complex, Chaotic World.
Parenting teens and tweens is hard, but you don’t have to do it alone. Here are some other posts you might find helpful:
This post was contributed by Jill Whitney, LMFT. She is the mom of two twenty-somethings and a licensed marriage and family therapist in Connecticut. In addition to her clinical work, she conducts workshops on talking about sexuality, writes at KeepTheTalkGoing.com, and has been quoted in dozens of articles on relationships and sexuality. She’s passionate about improving communication about sexuality, especially between parents and kids.
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