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Why You Should Drag Your Reluctant Teen to the Dinner Table

By , SparkPeople Blogger
I have a teenage son.  He is your typical high-schooler; he has his driving permit, participates in some school sports, and plays in the high school band.  He is striving for complete independence from his parents, yet is secretly still glad to have mom and dad around most of the time.  He often hangs out with his friends in my basement, playing pool, air-hockey, and euchre.  My husband and I have nick-named them the ''basement boys.''
So a few weeks ago, three of the ''basement boys'' decided to arrive on my front doorstep at 4:30 pm.  Their plan was to capture my son, eat at the local pizza place and then head to the basketball game.  I, on the other hand, had a better idea and invited them to stay for dinner and then go to the game.  Luckily, I had prepared a large pot of soup and had enough to feed the crew.  They agreed to stay for our evening meal. 
I called them to dinner and I knew full well that they expected to grab their soup and head to the ''man cave.'' As they turned to leave the kitchen, I said, ''WHOA! At this house, we eat our evening meal together at the dinner table."  They looked at my son for reinforcement, and he sheepishly replied, ''You’re not gonna change her mind.'' While they didn’t put up too much of a stink, I did hear all three of them say that they could not remember the last time they had eaten an evening meal with their parents and family.  Internally, I was horrified.  Externally, I remained disinterested, calm and poised.  I have discovered that this is usually the best approach to take with teenage boys.  Any sign of judgment or shock brings about complete silence and even more grunts and groans. I wondered what the heck we would discuss at our dinner table for the next 20-30 minutes.
Needless to say, my worries were quickly squelched. Luck was on my side, for there had been a drug search at the high school that day. The boys completely took over the conversation with a discussion about where drugs were found, on whom drugs were found, the antics of the drug-searching dogs, and the ramifications of the whole event. Once again, I took the best approach by remaining calm, disinterested and poised, while internally, I was processing every word. 
About two days later, I casually stated to my son, ''I found it interesting that your friends do not eat meals with their family.''  He gave me a quick shrug of the shoulders and a grunt, accompanied with something along the lines of, ''Mom, no one eats together anymore and if they do, they are also watching TV or texting.''  I know he is probably right about most of this; however, as a Registered Dietitian, it is hard for me to accept.  We are turning into an anti-social society and our children will be the ones to suffer.  While it was easy to bring the family together when my children were young, it is much more difficult with teens.  However, the simple act of eating together has so many benefits:
  • Family mealtime fosters family unity.  Developing a sense of family identity and togetherness helps children and teens to feel safe and secure in a confusing world. 
  • Family mealtime helps improve your child’s nutrition since parents tend to pay more attention to what is served at home.  There is an increase in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and dairy foods, with fewer fried foods and soft drinks.  This also helps children to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Family mealtime helps prevent behavioral problems.  The more often that a family eats together, the less likely teenagers are to become depressed, use illegal drugs, abuse alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or get pregnant. 
  • Family mealtime helps children do well in school.  Mealtime conversations improve a child’s vocabulary, language skills, and verbal expression.  This helps with classroom work and test-taking. 
But let’s face it.  Even on nights that the healthy meal is prepared and your teens come to the table, there is always the risk that they will clam up and have nothing to discuss.  You will be viewed as the invading, nosy parent.  So here are 10 conversation starters for the family:
  1. Tell a joke you think will make other family members laugh.
  2. Share something you think the family should plan to do in the future.
  3. Share how you performed while playing a sport or musical instrument today.
  4. What is the most interesting new song or piece of music you have heard recently?
  5. Describe an unexpected compliment you gave or received from someone recently.
  6. Give the highlights of a book you have read recently.
  7. Name 2 of the most important people alive (in your opinion) and share why you chose them. 
  8. Share the most interesting new movie, DVD or TV show you have seen recently.
  9. If you could have a super power, what would it be and why?
  10. Share how your favorite team or player in a college or professional sport performed today.
For those of you with teens to feed, what is going on in your home?  Are you able to get your teens to the table several nights a week?  What topics are they willing to discuss?  Any tips to share with our members?


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We spend 6 summer mos. next door to our son and family and I do most of the cooking. Usually it is taken to their house and all 7 of us sit down together for dinner. Kids are 10, 13, and 16. If someone has practice of some kind, dinner for everyone is moved to an earlier or later time. And the TV is turned off so there can be conversation! Report
My friend's family had the coolest mealtime activity. Each member at the supper table was given the opportunity to recall the best part of their day. They called it "bestpart" and it focused everyone on the many positive experiences that occurred on a continual basis. Too often we look for the negative - it becomes a habit to focus on the bad things. There is something good in every day, but you have to train yourself to be open to it. Report
Growing up, back in the Dark Ages, neither my brother or I knew anything different - and neither did our friends.

THE ONLY exception was if we were having dinner at a friends house, but even there everyone was at the table together.

When my sons were young, eating dinner together (and breakfast on week-ends) was just natural. I admit that when some of their friends came over, they acted as if they had never heard of anything so strange, but, they never said a thing until one day one of my oldest son's friends said, "Mrs. 'C', we never eat together when I'm at home. When I first came here to dinner, it was all I could do to keep my mouth shut - and your fried chicken did the rest. Since then, I've found out you and Bob are pretty cool. Do you think you could teach my mom and dad to be like you - I mean, talk like we had a brain and we can say something interesting?"

Neither my wife nor I thought there was a single thing funny in what he said. I felt what I can only describe as a grater being pulled across my soul and a feeling of great sadness in my heart.

My sons have children of their own now and there is no discussion about having meals together. Maybe it's because my folks were always my parents and they didn't really want to be our friends. That's certainly how I took my duties as a parent. My oldest son and DIL are that way with their children, and so is my youngest son. But my youngest son's ex-wife can't even cook and they never eat together as a family.

When she's in Missouri, she pitches a fit if it appears like someone "has something more important to do". I think I know where her head and heart are. Report
My daughter's senior year of school she was taking a sociology class. The teacher asked who had dinner with their family at least once a week. She was the only one of more than 25 students who raised her hand. That was a sad commentary that day! This wa sonly 2 years ago. Report
As a parent of a 14 yr old boy & 12 yr old girl, I loved comment about the disinterested, calm, poised expression! The four of us still eat together as a family at home most nights, but with all of the sports & activities it is hard to do some nights. I think it is important to try and keep family meal times as much as possible. Two hints that I'd like to share are -
1. We do a family "special plate" which rotates throughout the family members from meal to meal and everyone has to say something that they appreciate about the person with the special plate. Everyone likes to be appreciated and knows that they will get their turn.
2. For conversation starters (if needed), ask each person to say the best part of their day and the worst part of their day. The answers to this one are sometimes surprising and never fail to generate conversation.

It is a sad comment on our society that many families do not eat together on a regular basis. We do not allow tv, phone calls or texting at the dinner table. I think it's important to teach kids that there is a time & place for everything, also a time to "unplug." Report
We don't have a TV on the main floor. So far my boys 10 & 14 don't know any other way than to eat dinner together as a family. Currently I am working on teaching both boys to cook. They each have to choose something to cook one night a week. So far non of their friends that have been over for dinner have commented on not eating with their families. I'm sure it will happen at some time. Report
Thank you for doing such a wonderful thing for your son and his friends. I have no doubt that if the "basement boys" come over again they will enjoy the family meal. Report
Yes!!! I love your approach... calm, disinterested and poised!! Good for you-- stand your ground. I wonder if the "basement boys" went home and thought about you and your stand for family meal time. Who knows how that will affect them now and in the future. Report
Amen. Dinnertime is non-negotiable at our house. We discovered a great thing called "Chatpack" - little cards with questions - some funny, some thought-provoking. Report
We have always eaten together. Now my kids are grown with families of their own and they eat together. I must admit that my son wants to text at the table even now and I don't allow it!!! We are there to eat and talk not text. Report
Sigh......why, oh WHY is FORCING PEOPLE TO TALK WHEN THEY DON'T WANT TO is now considered a "good thing"??????? (Can you tell that I'm an introvert much?) I'm far from a teen, but much of the time I simply DON'T HAVE ANYTHING TO TALK ABOUT, so why force the issue and waste words? To me, that's stressful, and no meal should cause stress AT ALL! Report
We always eat together with our teenage son (17), but it's an uphill battle to get the TV turned off. My husband complains worse than my son when I turn it off.

We talk all the time, though--over breakfast, driving him to sports practice, etc. I make a point to get to know his friends, his music, and his video games, saving the negative comments for those rare occasions when it's something I feel strongly about. I've found the less judgmental you are, the more your teens will open up.

The dinner table is a great place to do that, since it's one of the few times the whole family is together, but it's not the only option. Report
Interestingly, while my (now adult) kids were teens, we never ate dinner together (didn't even own a dining table or chairs, so we ate at respective computer desks). But we would randomly talk and sometimes be sitting for an hour or two just chatting about stuff. Both had friends who would come over, none of whom was particularly awkward about talking with me around - or even talking to me.

Of course, I built that relationship with my kids early and I was two important things - willing to listen and hear them out without judgment (externally, at least) and interested in enough current things (music, games, etc) to have a common ground.

My memories of family dinner growing up were not ever some positive event. It was arbitrary rules, over-boiled and sauced food, and trying to avoid any particular parent attention and get away ASAP. What my experience tells me is that it's not the meal that is important. It's how the family interacts that is. Report
We almost always ate together as a family. And for one meal a day still do.
We also say grace, which I feel is the binding unit of the whole thing. Report
This is so true. I love the way you describe your reactions to their discussions. My kids always wonder how I know so much about what is going on in their lives. It is simple really, I listen to them. Not necessarily when they are talking to me but when they are talking to each other and their friends. They seem to forget that mom is in the room or the car. Report
TEEN?!?!?? I have a 25 year old that won't come to the table -I am beginning to think its a GENERATIONAL thing. Report
We ate dinner together nearly every night when my son was growing up. Now that my son is in college, not so much but whenever we can. I think it is really important and valuable to sit down and eat together as a family every day. When he was a kid I would ask him what was the most fun thing you did today? Report
We eat together at least four days a week and then Sunday dinner is a mandatory at grandparents or with church... even my 18 year old still joins us! LOL We had a similar experience with one of my oldest's friends. Said they NEVER ate together... he quite enjoyed the experience and comes by from time to time just because... typically around meal time. ;) What a great article... thank you for sharing this. Report
When my kids were at home I always tried to have everyone eat togather. There were nights when I knew they wouldn't get home from ball practice late, but most of the time we ate togather. Even to this day, when they are home or we are with then, we eat togather. Report
I didn't bother myself if my teens ate at the table or not, I always new what they were doing, since I would give them a back rub at night and they would talk about everything. Report
My family rarely ate together when I was growing up...unless it was a special occasion...and that is not something that my son and I do often. We do, however, spend lots of time together and we talk about everything.

I do cook more often than I used to. My son is a college freshman and he's surrounded by junk food most of the time, so I like knowing that I am providing some decent food for him every now and again.

I do believe that having a close relationship with our children and giving them a safe place to express themselves is important. For us, it's just not the dinner table. Report
Amen (is it ok to say that here?)
Growing up, my family ALWAYS ate evening meals together. We TRY very hard to do it with our two teenage girls. With one going to college next year, I wonder about what life will be like. Will she eat right? Will she have friends? What will the topics of their conversation be? What will life be like with only one at home?
I've tried to set an example, as my mom did, of eating right. I hope that will carry on into college life.
Becky, thanks for the conversation starters. Sometimes are meals are strained and rushed! I'm always too serious and my husband loves to liven things up. My girls love to be like my brothers and carry on with imitations of movies or burst into a comedy or song. I don't like singing around the table, but I do love my family together. The girls were both gone this week. It is spring break and they are on a band trip to Disney.
Thanks for sharing - for family - for friends - for good food and fellowship.

But thanks too to Spark People. I've had difficulty getting on today. Wow! Life without a spark . . . so sad! Report
We always eat together as a family. Now that my oldest son is 14, I have a great appreciation for the habit we have created. It is a great way to stay connected to his life as we do not see much of him otherwise! Report