Family meals: Connecting at the table

A young girl and her grandfather set the table for a meal.

The COVID-19 outbreak has impacted everyone’s normal routine in the last few months – children, teens and adults. Although we cannot control many things outside of our homes, we can be optimistic about the things we can control inside our homes.

An unanticipated (yet largely positive) outcome of this crisis has been our ability to be at home with our families more. We no longer have as many meetings to attend, sporting events to get to or traffic to contend with. This extra time can allow us to have family meals together! Family meals can serve as an anchor of stability for all family members in this somewhat uncertain time.

According to studies evaluated by the American College of Pediatrics, children and adolescents who have regular family meals:

  • consume more fruits and vegetables and eat less saturated fat, trans fats, fried foods and soda
  • are 35% less likely to engage in disordered eating
  • are 24% more likely to eat healthy family foods
  • are 12% less likely to become obese

A 2013 poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health found that busy family schedules were impacting family dinners.

  • 46% of those surveyed said that eating together as a family was difficult to do on a regular basis.
  • Less than half of the parents surveyed reported that they had eaten together six or seven nights out of the previous week.

Despite these barriers, having family meals together can be an important part of raising healthy children and teens. The best way to learn is often through direct modeling and family meals are important for teaching healthy eating habits to our children. These times together can also foster positive family relationships that can help with communication and cooperation in other areas as well, such as helping children and teens have better academic performance in school and having healthy peer relationships. The family table is one of the few, unique spaces where children can observe their parents or caregivers, interact, treat each other with respect, problem solve and express emotions.

How to build a healthy mealtime routine for your family

Focusing on small steps when working on a new goal tends to lead to better long-term outcomes. Dr. Kay Toomey is a recognized expert in this area and recommends that parents work on the following steps to create a family meal routine:

Step 1: Use a 5-minute warning – give all of the family members information that the meal is about to be held so that they have time to end what they are doing and be ready for the family meal.

Step 2: Have a “transition activity,” such as having a child wash their hands, help wash the family table or complete a food job (e.g., help to set the table for everyone in an age-appropriate fashion).

Step 3: Have everyone sit at the table with an empty plate at their spot. Although it is fine for people to sit in different locations at the table, it can be helpful to develop a routine of having people sit in certain spots so that this just automatically occurs.

Step 4: Use “family style” serving, meaning that everyone gets a little of every food served at the meal.

Step 5: For children who are learning to become more independent in the eating process, it can be helpful to start with what your child can do on their own, and then provide parent support if needed. For very young children or those with far less developed eating abilities, parents are encouraged to start with providing assistance first and then allowing the child to independently eat/explore after this.

Step 6: Everyone should help with the clean-up process. Children need to clean up in order to give them a clear indication that the meal is ending, because this allows them another time to be exposed to a newer food, and it can test whether they are done eating in the time that they have.

We also encourage our families to stick to the following rules to help them create family meals.

  • Everyone will come to the table when called, turn off all screens (phone, tablet, TV), help set the table (or complete another food job) and sit in their spot at the table.
  • Everyone will try one bite of each food on the plate (but for newer foods, “mouse bites,” tastes or licks are okay).
  • Everyone will stay at the table for 20-30 minutes with the family. At the end of the meal, the child will ask to be dismissed and clean off his or her own plate.

Have patience, optimism, and don’t be too hard on yourself!

For a family that hasn’t been able to establish family meals together, this can take effort. It is important to know that child temperament and development play a role in how easy or hard this is to create, so for families that make this look easy it may be a good parent-child match in temperament that helps. For many families, this can be hard and it is important to remember to be patient with ourselves and our children, as well as picking our battles and ignoring annoying mealtime behaviors, like whining. Parents should lead with eternal optimism while presenting with a neutral mood and creating normal family conversations. If parents feel the need to hover or to talk about how their child is doing at meals, it may be more helpful for them to focus on their own plate of food and to make appropriate comments about their own enjoyment with the different characteristics of the food they are eating. Meals don’t always need to be fun family times, but they should be calm and provide consistent approaches to being together.

Practice gratitude

View OHSU’s COVID-19 resources here.

This COVID-19 crisis will pass Yet, we all have the opportunity to work on specific areas that we have some control over now. Change is not a pass or fail test – it is a process. To begin, we should set small and attainable goals, like having a family meal once or twice a week to start. Remember, small steps in the right direction can allow us to achieve great things over time!


Sheila Visvanathan, Nutrition Graduate Student and LEND Nutrition Trainee
Darren Janzen, Psy.D.
LEND (Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities) Program
Oregon Health & Science University