The Anatomy of a Family Dinner

The Anatomy of a Family Dinner

By Jennifer McClanahan-Flint

When you have a daughter who is getting ready to start kindergarten, rules are a big part of the family routine. She believes in following the rules, as well as breaking them. It is part of learning for her. She is testing the boundaries and gaining independence. Successfully following the rules and rituals of our family has helped her grow in self-control and confidence.

A nice aspect to our dinner ritual is that the dinner rules apply to everyone in the family, not just her. It gives her a sense that she has a place at the dinner table and in our family tribe. Below are some of our dinner-time rules that helped my family start the ritual of regularly eating dinner together.

We set a regular meal time.

Kids who can predict what will happen and when it will happen have a greater sense of security. That is why kids love a regular and orderly schedule. If your child is like mine, she gets quite upset at any change in her normal routine, unless it involves ice-cream. After we set a regular meal time, she never let us forget when dinner was late. What I found most important wasn’t really the time that we decided to eat together; it was that we consistently ate around the same time each day.

Everyone has pre-dinner age-appropriate responsibilities.

I usually give my family a 20-minute countdown until dinner is ready. Part of the countdown includes reminding them of the following rules: Go potty before dinner; wash hands; set the table.

This routine helps them transition from after-school play time and/or homework to dinner and family time. Zoe is getting old enough to start helping to prepare dinner, so I make sure to give her tasks that involve her in the kitchen, as much as possible.

We have family rules while eating together.

Our family dinner ritual has helped our daughter develop manners and the ability to devel

op and maintain conversations. One of our non-negotiable rules is no toys at the dinner table, which includes cell phones, blackberries and computers. We also agree that dinner starts when we turn off the TV. Once we eliminated distractions we found we had better dinner conversation.

Our more subtle rules are using the appropriate tone when talking, waiting your turn to speak and not speaking with your mouthful. The most challenging dinner rule in our ritual is that everyone must eat at least one bite of everything on their plate, dad included.

Post dinner transition.

We allow our daughter to be excused from the table only after we have all finished eating. This creates a ritual-level of importance of eating together. Other rules are clearing your dishes, and wiping your hands and mouth before leaving the table. We

like to make a habit of relaxing on the couch and chatting before cleaning the kitchen and starting the bedtime routine. It is a great way to transition from family time to bedtime.

Maintaining our family dinner ritual takes time and prioritization. I admit, establishing a family-meal ritual was daunting at first. But, seeing how Zoe relies on these rules to guide her decision

making processes and to build self-discipline keeps us sold on making the effort.

Establishing a consistent dinnertime ritual requires that we are not over scheduled. That makes for an ongoing conversation about balance when we think about adding after-school activities to our daughter’s schedule. And heaven knows it is trying with our hectic calendars. But, the benefits of increased communication and improved nutrition for my family have made it worth the effort. Sticking with our family dinner ritual has exceeded any challenges we have come up against.


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Jennifer McClanahan-Flint helps working moms successfully integrate their work and family life. Her weekly ezine goes out every Thursday to subscribers across the country. If you want to learn how to master work-life integration, you can sign up for a free subscription to her ezine at