Family Meal Conundrum: Four Chairs for Five People

Photo by Alexander-Ellis Oak InteriorsAmy, the 17-year-old daughter of someone I know, spent this summer as a nanny for three amazing kids, age five to eleven. She learned to juggle a lot of comings and goings and stay on top of a hectic schedule of events. But in between tennis and golf camps, soccer practice, swim team, and play dates, they hung out, filling their time with crafts, games, and home activities. One day as they lounged around the house, Amy noticed that their kitchen table had only four chairs, so she casually asked, “How do you all sit down for dinner with only four chairs?” The oldest daughter answered, “Oh, it doesn’t matter because we never eat at the same time.” Amy couldn’t imagine a family life without family meals, but these kids knew nothing different.

This story is not unique – it is symptomatic of a larger trend in our culture where kids’ sports and other extra-curricular activities have displaced the family dinner hour. As a family, my husband and I have faced the challenges of our three kids’ activities being scheduled on top of dinnertime and had to explore creative ways to work around them. But since family dinner is a core value for us, we’ve found solutions. That said, I understand why many families cave in and decide to make dinner a non-event.

Bruce Feiler in his book, The Secrets of Happy Families, even argues that family dinner is not as important as the family narrative. While he makes an interesting argument, I don’t completely buy his rationale, countering in my recent post, Sunday Night Dinner: Rituals that Build the Family Narrative, that family dinners are a crucial opportunity to tell and create family narratives.

The Kids Eat Right program from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics supports the efforts of the White House to end the childhood obesity epidemic within a generation. It is a two-tiered campaign — with components for the general public and for Academy member registered dietitians — with the goal of educating families, communities, and policy makers about the importance of quality nutrition. Many of my colleagues in the nutrition community are working hard to shift this trend, providing valuable educational resources and cooking advice to help busy families eat together. I’ll highlight the work of a few passionate dietitians:

  • Jodie Shield, MEd, RD hosts a website and weekly blog, Healthy Eating for Families, which provides tips and resources to help busy families eat healthy together
  • Trina Robertson, MS, RD, leads a LinkedIn Discussion Group, Meals Matter, a resource hub for registered dietitians to help make healthy meal planning easier!
  • Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, award-wining author and consultant, specializes in nutrition for families and kids, communicates to consumers via Twitter and her writing for WebMD.

I applaud all these efforts to help families embrace and practice healthy mealtimes, but what more can we do to reverse this trend? If parents want their kids to be involved in sports and activities, they must follow league schedules. That is the conundrum. It is a bigger societal issue with a chicken-and-egg set of questions. Does it start with the schools and sports leagues scheduling activities during the dinner hour, or does it stem from parents’ expectations that these programs be available after school/work? When I was a kid in the 60s, we ran and played with a pack of neighborhood kids. But in today’s world, there are no kids running through the backyards because they’re all driven to structured activities. If you don’t put your kid in activities, they have no one to play with – another chicken-and-egg dilemma.

Dr. Bill Doherty through his project Putting Family First takes on this issue through community activism, targeting problems that he characterizes as “stemming from this mixed-up culture of parenting, including the issue of overscheduled kids and under-connected families.”

While I don’t propose to have the answers, I’m interested in a dialogue about the issue:

  • What is lost from family life without the traditions of a family dinner/meal?
  • Do the physical fitness benefits of youth sports offset the nutritional downsides of families eating on the run?
  • How might we elevate the issue to prompt dialogue and potentially shift this trend?



  1. Trina Robertson, M.S., R.D.N. on September 9, 2013 at 4:58 pm

    Jean, you raise so many important questions in this post. As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I value the family meal as you do. I encourage those who are interested in this subject to visit the many family meal resources available at our website,

    As a mom of two active children, I can attest to the challenges of scheduling a family meal. I still remember a conversation with my father a few years ago about my family weekend and he said it’s no wonder we have so little time. As one of four children, we did not have nearly the packed calendar my children have. I still remember how much my sisters and I would laugh as we sat around the table with my parents. The fond memories I have push me to have family meals as often as we can.

    The benefits of sports and other classes/activities don’t outweigh the benefits of family meals yet the benefits of keeping kids engaged in a positive activity makes me continue to sign them up. I don’t see activities are during dinner hour changing anytime soon. If dinner doesn’t work out for everyone then I try to sit with whoever is eating so they know I am available to listen, or in most cases, to ask them about their day. Instead of giving up on family meals, get creative and have breakfast or lunch together. The conversation may be different- reading the newspaper and talking about what you plan for the day- but it is no less valuable.

    Thank you for sharing out the Meals Matter LinkedIn group. I look forward to hearing what others have to say about having a regular family meal.

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