Emily Oster

2 min Read Emily Oster

Emily Oster

How Important Is Family Dinner?

Q&A on sit down meals

Emily Oster

2 min Read

How important is it to have family dinner with a 2-year-old? She eats early and it’s hard to cook after work and still feed her on time, so we serve her leftovers from the night before and eat when she goes to bed.

—Allison

Family dinner is one of the hardest behaviors to study; I talk about this in more detail in The Family Firm. The basic issue is that families who have dinner together are very different (in several other ways) than families who do not. More than that, this behavior is often so ingrained in family life that it’s almost impossible to change in either direction. Randomized trials that encourage family dinner have failed, largely because they simply cannot get people to change their eating behavior. 

In the data — in the correlations — family dinner is correlated with all kinds of good outcomes, including better school performance, fewer behavioral problems, and so on. But again, with such significant differences across families, establishing causality here is pretty much impossible. 

There are broader reasons we might think family dinner would matter. The two important ones are: it’s a focused time for parents to connect with their children, and it’s an opportunity to model a relationship with mealtime that may have some long-term benefits. The combination of these reasons with the strong correlations makes it hard to dismiss the value completely. 

But focusing on the reasons it might matter can also help us shape how we do family dinner, or things we do instead. It sounds like what you are doing is getting most (all?) of the benefits — focused time with your kid, a seated meal. And there are other ways to get this too. Breakfast! An hour before bedtime! Weekend brunch!

My point is, the focus on family dinner can get a little monolithic. My friend Ben once told me they have family dinner because otherwise your children turn out to be serial killers. (This is not true.) By understanding why there may be some value, you can craft a version of it that works for your family.

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Curiousdad
Curiousdad
24 days ago

This is extremely important to us for numerous reasons. Parents shouldn’t kill themselves over it though. Dinner time (yes even with a 2 year old) is an invaluable opportunity to have dedicated time as a family. It also improves their eating habits (we all try what is on our plates) as well as table manners for eating out at restaurants. Our kid is flat out the best eater of all his friends and has the best manners and attention span at a table- the only differentiator is we sit down together every single night. Is it work – yes. Is it worth it – yes.

CfgS
CfgS
24 days ago

This is my “willing to die on this hill” subject. Seated family dinners are not the be all and end all and there are much more important aspects that contribute to your child’s development. I feel like this idea that all children of all ages must sit with their parents at meal times is just universally accepted as crucial when in reality it is completely situational. Eating together at meals times will not save an otherwise toxic upbringing, equally a thriving child’s success is not dependable on if they sat at a table and said their favourite part of the day. I wish there was more discourse on this but it seems to be stuck in this good/bad parenting dichotomy that most other aspects of parenting have moved past.

Jennifer
Jennifer
27 days ago

Just want to suggest reading Jenny Rosenstrach’s book Dinner: A Love Story! It’s based on her blog, but given the poster’s question, I suggest the book! It’s a really fun read, and will make you feel better about family dinner at different stages of child-raising. It’s also a cookbook but I enjoyed the memoir parts the most.

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