Subtle-But-Important Signs Your Child Is Craving Consistent Family Dinners

An intuitive eating counselor shares behavioral signs that your child would benefit from a more structured mealtime, at any age.

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The recommendation of eating dinner as a family is among the most frequently given advice to parents. 

There is no doubt that regular family dinners lead to overall healthier eating and can set up your children for lifelong good eating habits. Additionally, research links family dinners with multiple other benefits including better grades in school, less family stress, and stronger relationships among family members.


For some families eating dinner together comes naturally, but for others (including mine when my son was growing up) family dinner is a big challenge. Despite its demonstrated value, American cultural practices don’t always support families in eating together. Whether it’s long or conflicting work hours, after-school sports and lessons, or lack of household support, family dinnertime can easily slip away.

If this describes your family, the following are some signs that your children could benefit from a more structured approach to dinnertime, and some tips for making family meals work even in the most challenging situations.


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Signs that your kids (of any age) could really use the routine of a family meal together

1. Toddlers and preschoolers

In the first year or two babies are naturally fed on demand. As they transition to solid foods the challenge becomes adding structure and predictability to feeding time. Two signs of your child needing more structure as they grow are:

  • There is never a clear end to eating especially if the child puts off bedtime due to eating needs or demands, or
  • You find yourself pushing food at the first sign of distress, a habit that can lead to eating as a way of comfort rather than for addressing hunger.

By slowly introducing structured feeding times the child will learn to consolidate and regulate their eating. This predictability reduces stress for both the child and the parents, and it helps the child feel safe. Because younger children do need to eat more often than adults you may still need snack times before and/or after regular dinnertime.

There may be good reasons in your family to feed small children earlier than older children or adults and put them to bed before the family meal, and that’s fine. It’s hard to relax and focus on the food and conversation with a disruptive toddler in the mix. Know that they will quickly age out of this stage and for now, it’s your attention during their meal time that counts.

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2. Grade school kids

Kids from preschool and up present new feeding challenges. The need for a family dinner time can become apparent from:

  • Lack of acceptable manners at meals outside of the family home.
  • Excessive “grazing behavior,” is characterized as constant or mindless snacking throughout the day and evening.
  • Eating becoming more picky.
  • Excess clinging, whining, or neediness which may indicate a need for more adult attention or a need for more consolidated food intake, both of which are met by family dinners.

Mealtime hunger is a real thing and can’t be satisfied with a little of this and that. One problem is that grazing sets up a negative cycle that reduces hunger at scheduled mealtimes which leads to more snacking later. A predictable dinnertime at this age supplemented with predictable snacks provides a greater chance for exposure to healthy food options as well as a more conscious connection to appetite signals.

Family dinnertime at this age also sets up habits and expectations for the important teen years to follow. The sooner in life you make the rules for mealtimes clear the easier it will be for the rest of their growing up years.

For this reason, be sure you include school-age kids in dinnertime preparation and clean up even if they aren’t that much actual help. It may take some time to get to a workable, positive mealtime routine but it will be worth it in the end.

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3. Tweens and teens

These are the years when family dinnertime matters the most. Signs in addition to the above that signal the importance of family dinnertime for these ages include:

  • Isolation such as staying in their room or always being on their phone.
  • Disrespectful family communications.
  • Rarely or never eating in front of you.

A regular family dinner time will give you at least one scheduled time to observe your teen eating and to have a time of at least neutral communication. It’s often your best chance to get some idea of what your teen is eating as well as thinking.

To achieve this you will have to enforce some rules such as no cell phones and no criticism at the dinner table. And of course, adults need to follow these rules too. The benefits of family dinners come from it being a positive experience for all family members. It’s not the place for heavy discussions or airing disagreements.

The bottom line is that family dinners serve multiple purposes. They provide a time for family members to let each other know what happened in their day. They consolidate evening eating which reduces snacking and has the practical benefit of allowing the kitchen to be cleaned and “closed” for the night.


They set the stage for a calm and regular bedtime routine. And family dinners provide a natural time to teach manners, social skills, and values around food. For these reasons, family dinners are an important bonding experience and many grown children look back on them with fond memories.

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What if family dinner doesn't work for you?

What can you do if you have identified that your children can benefit from family dinnertime but find this difficult to achieve? First, know that any meal together provides similar benefits. Family breakfast, family lunch, or family snack and movie night may be better options for you. It doesn’t have to occur every day either. Even one regular family meal together per week has many benefits.

There are also similar benefits to scheduling regular meals with children one-to-one rather than with the whole family. Little traditions like an ice cream together after sports matches or a snack together after daycare pick-up can go far toward good parent-child relationships. These efforts can also reap benefits in later years in the same way as family dinners.


Finally, while there is something magical about sharing food together, remember that kids benefit from all kinds of routines and focused interactions. Time together doesn’t have to include a meal. 

I have wonderful memories of the times my father took me out alone for meals and I recreated that with my son in the form of a Saturday lunch at the only restaurant we could both agree on. Despite his teen reluctance to tell me anything he couldn’t hold out for the entire meal and I not only gained the benefit of knowing he had one full meal that week but I also learned some interesting things about his world.

Two decades later that restaurant chain is still “our” place. We didn’t have many family dinners but we still sit down over coffee when we are together thanks to the years of family breakfasts. We also still find regular times to talk despite now living halfway around the world from each other, and I credit this to the meal routines and other focused time together.


Keep the intended benefits in mind and feel free to come up with substitutions that work for your family, with no guilt necessary. Any positive family time together has benefits.

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Lisa Newman, MAPP, is a positive psychology practitioner, health coach, and certified intuitive eating counselor.