Weeknight Family Dinner Won’t Make or Break Your Children

Time management expert Laura Vanderkam debunks the notion that dinner together seven days a week is the key to parenting

Illustration: Michael Rubin

Laura Vanderkam, the time management expert who wrote Off the Clock and Juliet’s School of Possibilities, is here to answer your scheduling questions. Check back every week for more advice, and send your own productivity problems to asklaura@medium.com. (Your name will not be used.)

Dear Laura: I keep reading about how important family dinner is for kids. But between work schedules and kid activities, we almost never sit down together for a home-cooked meal during the week. Will my kids be ruined for life?

FFor something as simple as gathering a group of people around a table, family dinner can be a fraught topic. Parenting books and articles tout statistics claiming that eating dinner together regularly is associated with better school performance and lower rates of drug use. A busy-and-feeling-guilty-about-it parent might easily conclude that the opposite is also true: Skip those dinners and your kids will drop out of school and turn into delinquents.

But any claims that this or that parenting behavior will define how kids “turn out” should be greeted with skepticism. It’s easy to confuse correlation and causation, and sure enough, more careful analysis finds that there’s little reliable data to suggest family dinner in itself plays such a pivotal role. It stands to reason: The sorts of families who sit down together for family dinners have lots of other things going for them that correspond with good outcomes. It isn’t the meal that’s working the magic.

Which is good, because many loving, functional families find during-the-week dinners challenging. In my household of six people, the odds that my husband and I are both there and no child needs to be at karate, swim, or something else between the hours of 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. are… low.

But you can get some of the upsides of family meals without driving yourself crazy trying to put a pot roast on the table, Norman Rockwell–style, on Tuesday night.

First, family meals don’t have to be weeknight dinners. There is nothing sacred about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. My general thought is that anything you do three times a week is a habit. If your family eats dinner together on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night, you are doing family dinners — they just happen at more convenient times.

And remember that a family meal doesn’t need to be home-cooked. Takeout every night isn’t practical for most, but there are plenty of intermediate options, like a supermarket rotisserie chicken plus a bagged salad. Frozen pizzas can be a good option, and you can always doctor them with some extra veggies; just keep a bag of frozen mushrooms, peppers, artichokes, or other such things on hand. Plenty of grocery stores sell prepared foods, such as marinated chicken breasts or cuts of fish, that you can just stick in the oven. Throw a bag of precut veggies on a sheet pan at the same time, and you’ve concocted something healthy with close to zero work.

You can get some of the upsides of family meals without driving yourself crazy trying to put a pot roast on the table, Norman Rockwell–style, on Tuesday night.

Even if you do want cooked-from-scratch weeknight meals, that work need not be shouldered, solo, by one person. If family meals are a priority, then everyone can pitch in and help. Adults can each take a meal during the week, for sure, but so can preteen and teenage children. A 14-year-old might be given the responsibility for Tuesday night dinners. He can learn to add any required ingredients to a grocery delivery order by, say, Saturday, and then cook a simple meal for the family. This is a great way to teach children a skill they will need as adults — and a great way to get dinner on the table without the hassle.

And it’s worth remembering that family meals don’t have to be dinners. My family likes to do breakfast. We generally manage to all sit together on at least one weekend morning and one morning during the week. Frankly, I think breakfast has more going for it than dinner. No one is fighting about the cuisine. (Waffles and strawberries are an easier sell than broccoli.) And it’s easy: Whipping up a pan of scrambled eggs takes all of 10 minutes. Since it’s the beginning of the day instead of the end, we’re relatively rested. We can enjoy each others’ company before we go our separate ways.

If it’s family face time over a meal that you crave, you might look at your family’s weekday schedule and see if there’s a morning when you can set your alarm 15 minutes earlier and break out the maple syrup.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.

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