This past Thanksgiving, our family of five and a few friends ate dinner on folding tables and camp chairs alongside a rented 40-foot RV. And it was transformative.

I usually turn into a stressed-out crazy person when preparing holiday dinners (or any family meal for that matter!), making mealtime a minefield for my family. But the different setting created a different me. Not knowing what the ideal RV Thanksgiving would look like, I had no unrealistic expectations of myself or anyone else. I delegated everything possible, ordering a smoked turkey from a highly reviewed local food truck and desserts from a nearby bakery. Most importantly, I embraced the excuse to scale back, keeping side-dishes simple and replacing my china and linen with paper plates and napkins. My relaxed attitude made everyone more willing to pitch in and the meal was more memorable as a result - not because of the food or ambience, but for the shared time together.

Benefits of the family meal

According to the FamilyDinnerProject.org, having these shared family experiences on a consistent, weekly basis has immense benefits for children, regardless of how fancy the meal is. Studies show that children who grow up having regular family meals have higher academic performance with an increased vocabulary level; improved eating habits and health (including lower risk of obesity); reduction in the high-risk teenage behaviors feared most by parents (such as smoking, binge drinking, marijuana use, violence, school problems, eating disorders and sexual activity); and lower rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

These benefits are not derived directly from fruits and vegetables, but from the attitude and consistency of getting together as a family.

Take a shortcut

No time to prep for meals and no food truck nearby? Consider utilizing a meal kit service such as Blue Apron or HelloFresh to do some of the planning and grocery shopping for you. Or maybe enlist a grocery delivery service such as Peapod to gather the ingredients for your favorite recipes. Other services, such as Territory, simplify things further by providing fully cooked meals that you pick up at designated locations. Check out TheScramble.com for more ideas on simplifying family meal preparation.

Think outside dinnertime

Everyone gathers for Thanksgiving dinner, but work, school and activity schedules may preclude regular family dinners on other days. Focus on what is possible, whether it's making breakfast, Sunday brunch or afterschool snack time the main family meal. Food doesn't even have to be involved to gather everyone around the table for a quick check-in and daily reflection.

Keep it light and spice it up

The benefits of family meals are linked to the atmosphere in which they take place. To encourage healthy eating and conversation, stay relaxed and engaged and avoid grilling kids about undone chores or homework. Keep mealtime a No Hassle Zone. Lowering our expectations on manners and ignoring sibling spats by shining the light on what's right can keep them coming back for more. Check out TableTopics.com for questions to start great conversations, or try a few of these:

  • If you could have any super power, what would it be and why?

  • If you had a time machine for a day, what would you do with it?

  • What's your first childhood memory?

  • If we could go anywhere you wanted on vacation, where would you choose? Why?

  • If you could have a conversation with anyone in history, who would it be?

  • Would you rather live in a castle, on a boat or on a cloud?

  • If you were invisible, where would you go and what would you do?

For fun, try mixing things up by picnicking outdoors or, in colder weather, on the living room floor. Dine by candlelight or on Grandma's prized china. Schedule regular theme nights when kids can choose music or decorations to match the menu.

Turn it all off

Televisions, smart phones, computers, tablets … turn them off or keep them out of the room to eliminate distractions. Having electronics on or nearby negates the benefits of dining as a family. In fact, a study by researchers at the University of Missouri found that American kindergartners who watched TV during dinner were more likely to be overweight by the time they were in third grade. Need to keep them at the table longer? Set a timer for half an hour with the request that everyone stay seated for the full thirty minutes - even if they wolf down their meal in five. At our Thanksgiving table, everyone piles their phone in the middle of the table with the first one reaching for it in charge of clean up. Talk about keeping them in their chairs!

Don't go it alone

Include your kids in the planning, shopping and preparing - they're usually more willing to make something work when it's their idea! The training can be time consuming in the short term, but will pay big dividends over time.

Realize that memorable mealtime habits aren't formed overnight. Try adding just one meal a week to your routine or introducing one new idea to improve the dinner dynamic. My family's next Thanksgiving may not be at the same location, but I will definitely approach it with the same attitude.


Mealtime Resources


Robbye Fox is mother of three, a Certified Parent Educator with the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington, MD and an independent educational consultant working with high-schoolers selecting and applying to college.