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by Daniel Waldheim, Regent University Charis Institute

With SMART goal-setting considerations from blog two now in place, the focus shifts to cultivating a positive mealtime experience. The obvious must be addressed: families are not the same. Some differences between families include a family’s desired frequency of meals, number of children, age of children, food preferences, etc. These factors make the specific details of mealtime time look different across families. Here are a couple general guidelines and considerations that will make for a positive mealtime experience regardless of what your family looks like. All of pointers are derived from Harvard clinical psychologist and family dinner expert Anne Fishel (2016):


Be flexible based upon the scheduling needs of your family. Family breakfasts or weekend lunches will confer the same benefits as dinner (p. 520). Notice that I have not used dinnertime, but mealtime throughout the course of the blogs. It is not the meal type, but the quality of the interpersonal connection and conversation which matter (p. 517).

*Meal prep:

Fishel states lack of time “is the most common reason that parents offer for not having family dinners” (p. 517). Her solution is to make double batches, cook lighter meals like a soup and sandwich, and to take shortcuts like buying a rotisserie chicken or pizza dough (p. 517). This strategy will benefit all family types, but may be especially useful for single-parenting.


Aim for five or more dinners (or just meals) to reap the associated nutritional, emotional, and cognitive benefits of family mealtime (p. 520) that you will read about in blog four.


Consider implementing certain games, in light of the ages of your children, that will make the time at the table fun and foster conversation while revealing information about others. Some potential options include rose (i.e., highlight), thorn (i.e., low), and bud (i.e., anticipation), two truths and a lie (or wish), and would you rather (p. 521).


Share stories and family history at the table. Duke et al. (2003) reported that children who know their family stories are more resilient, have higher self-esteem, and a more positive view of the future (as cited in Fishel, 2016, p. 520). Stories also help younger children develop and learn language. Given that new words are usually embedded in stories told at the table, young children learn ten times as many rare words at mealtime as they do from hearing their parents read storybooks aloud (p. 515).

*Getting children to eat:

Fishel lays it out clearly: the more children are engaged in the meal process, (i.e., shopping, cooking, setting the table, cleaning, etc.) the more they are stakeholders in the meal, and the more likely they will be to eat their food (p. 519-520).

*Addressing picky eaters:

Fishel exhorts not to bribe, cajole, or trick through the oft-practiced strategy of offering a reward if the child eats the healthy food (p. 518). As Galloway, Fiorita, Francis, and Birch (2006) note, the desire for the reward food (i.e., junk food) will increase while the desire for the target healthy food will decrease (as cited in Fishel, 2016, p. 518). An example of this practice is when the child is offered a cookie in exchange for eating their broccoli. Furthermore, Maimaran and Fishback, 2016) describe the danger of telling a child that the target food will lead to increase in x (e.g., “eating that asparagus will make you run faster for basketball”). The danger is that if kids assume the target food (i.e., asparagus) is good for one benefit like increased speed for basketball, it can’t be good for the other, like tasting good (as cited in Fishel, 2016, p. 518). Parents can model their own enjoyment of the food, encourage tactile play with the food, and increase familiarity with novel foods to increase the likelihood the food will be eaten by the picky eater (p. 518). For example, Coulthard and Thakker (2015) discovered that “children who play with their food are less likely to have food aversions;” an example of this type of tactile play is “smearing oil on vegetables before roasting” (as cited in Fishel, 2016, p. 518). Sullivan and Birch (1990) uncovered the rule of 15, “children crave familiarity, so nutritionists offer the rule of 15: keep presenting a new food up to 15 times until it is no longer novel” (p. 518).

*Focus on the Atmosphere:

Try to foster a positive, amiable atmosphere as much as possible. Fishel says, “The benefits of family dinner depend on a warm and welcoming atmosphere at the table, and the secret sauce that explains most of the benefits comes from the conversation at the table” (p. 517). In other words, this atmosphere is necessary for reaping all the benefits that you will read about in the next blog post.


Families are different. Therefore, what makes a mealtime a successful, positive experience in one family is not the same as it may be for another family. Nonetheless, the above are general guidelines that will help to foster a positive environment for mealtime which, coupled with consistency, constitute the most important elements of mealtime. In turn, this positive mealtime experience will strengthen the bonds within the family and make the family a stronger unit overall.

If you would like some awesome resources for recipe ideas, games for the table, navigating the specifics of technology at the table, and the dynamics different ages bring to the table, consider this resource:

The Family Dinner Project: The Family Dinner Project – The Family Dinner Project


Fishel, A. K. (2016). Harnessing the power of family dinners to create change in family therapy. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 37(4), 514-527.