family building

8 Easy Alternatives to Family Dinner

The book The Secrets of Happy Families has gotten me all fired up about being intentional with our family this year. I’m sure you’ve heard about the benefits before, but author Bruce Feiler talks about family dinner as “the single biggest predictor of better academic achievement and fewer behavior problems” for children.

I don’t know a parent in the world who wouldn’t want that. But…

My husband doesn’t enjoy family dinners.

Or at least, he hasn’t always enjoyed them. We are beginning to see a beam of light at the end of the tunnel as our boys grow, but until recently, we couldn’t eat without something being spilled and stepped on—without kids hot on our heels when we went to get more milk.

Luckily, Feiler says you only actually get about ten minutes of productive time out of any family meal, amid all the trips to the kitchen and requests to pass the salt. WHICH MEANS—You can get the benefits of family dinner other ways.

So because Ryan often isn’t home in time for weeknight dinners—and because we sometimes we just like to eat in peace—it’s a relief to know that we can build a strong family culture even without seven family dinners a week.

For busy families, how to build a strong family culture *without* seven family dinners a week: 8 Easy Alternatives to Family Dinner

8 Easy Alternatives to Family Dinners 

1. Family breakfast. This is probably the easiest switch to make if one parent works late. The only thing is that you may have to be more purposeful about conversation since it tends to flow slowly in the morning. (Unless you wake up on steroids, like our four-year-old. 🙂 

2. A bedtime snack or dessert, once everyone is home and relaxed. (A big win with kids!) 

3. Driving time. There’s no reason not to make this time count. And with everyone looking out the window instead of into each other’s eyes, I hear teenagers tend to open up more in the car. 🙂

4. Weekly family meetings. One night at the beginning of the week, round everyone up to share a prayer, go over the calendar and talk about what you can work on as a family that week.

5. Stay-up-late nights. Pick one night a week to let one child stay up an extra 15 minutes for some individual time with Mom and Dad. You can do an activity that he or she selects, or you can just snuggle on the couch and catch up.

6. Family video chats. For the parent who is working long hours or is away on business, FaceTime is a great way to reconnect for a few minutes and make your child feel special just because you wanted to see her.

7. Saturday brunch. Who doesn’t love to go out for a late breakfast or a spontaneous donut run? This puts us in a good mood for the rest of the day (which admittedly isn’t always the case on a Saturday with young kids underfoot).

8. Seasonal traditions. Building a fire (indoors or outdoors), star gazing on a big blanket in your backyard, sleeping on the trampoline, spending a weekend at a cabin—all give plenty of chances to make memories and build confidence in our kids.

So how does your family make time to connect? Family dinners? Breakfasts? Netflix marathons?

Update: If you’re interested in how to make the most of meal times when you actually get to the table, hop over to read 12 activities for family meals, with a printable! 

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  • Claire @ Lemon Jelly Cake
    February 6, 2014 at 6:51 pm

    Oh my goodness, building a fire is the greatest way to get everyone together I know of . . . especially if there are s’mores involved. I can’t always convince my husband to go for a walk, but if I mention the word “fire,” he’s outside in a heartbeat. 🙂 Family dinners are kind of an assumed thing for me because it’s all I’ve ever known, but I do love to create extra family time through things like random breakfasts and yes, donut runs!

    • Erica - Let Why Lead
      February 6, 2014 at 7:06 pm

      Hi Claire! That’s so cute that your husband is outside in a heartbeat at just the mention of it. And yes, I really can’t think of a better place to sit and talk than over a fire. (Bond-fire! haha)

  • Ashley Ponder Richards
    February 6, 2014 at 11:39 pm

    We try to sit down and have supper together. My husband works half of the time away so sometimes we do special outings for donuts or frozen yogurt. These are all good suggestions.

  • Katie @ Wonderfully Made
    February 6, 2014 at 11:53 pm

    Absolutely love this! Jeff gets home late and we’ve felt so torn about not having family dinner. We think it’s so important but just haven’t found a way to swing it. But THIS. This list of awesome ideas we can do 🙂

    • Erica - Let Why Lead
      February 7, 2014 at 12:09 am

      We’re the same. I almost always eat early with the kids, maybe around 5 or 5:30, on the weekdays, but we’ve got weekends and breakfasts and surprise bedtime deserts. It all works out! I figure right now it’s easy to get in family time because we’re all the kids have got. Eventually we’ll have to be even more deliberate about it, as the kids get more involved with things outside the family.

  • Rachel T.
    February 7, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    These are great ideas! Sierra has started to make dinner miserable by deciding to throw tantrums over sitting in her high chair, having to wear a bib, wanting to be done eating to sit with Chad (since he just got home), etc. and we get to sit there and listen to her cry sometimes. Not so fun.

    But I do especially love Saturday morning breakfasts–going to Ihop or to get donuts or making an elaborate meal, and just having Chad there makes it fun!

    • Erica - Let Why Lead
      February 7, 2014 at 10:40 pm

      OH SIERRA! But seriously, that’s exactly when Ryan started not liking family dinners. Don’t think he really minded working late during those years. 🙂 But Saturday mornings really do make up for a lot… Love you guys!

  • Jodi
    February 8, 2014 at 2:25 am

    I love the 8 ideas to spend time with your kids.

  • Jeni
    February 10, 2014 at 4:05 am

    I always love your posts, Erica! They really resonate with me and I find myself ruminating about things I’ve read here over the next weeks and months. I tried (and succeeded!) to strike up a meaningful conversation over our post-church family lunch today because of reading this post; it was great, so thank you! 🙂

  • Dianna @ Oy Vey a Day
    February 12, 2014 at 12:07 am

    This is a wonderful list, and I am pinning it so that I can refer back to it later.

    Honestly, I don’t really like family dinners, either. However, I love the IDEA of family dinners… with FAMILY being the key part, not the dinner. I am happy to see a list of other options that can build family bonds.

    • Erica - Let Why Lead
      February 12, 2014 at 12:10 am

      Hi Dianna! I am glad you can relate! Thank you for introducing yourself – I’ve enjoying poking around your blog! It looks like a great resource for moms!

  • Heather
    February 12, 2014 at 8:21 am

    Great post. We don’t do the traditional family dinners either. My hubby is either on the bed or in front of the computer. But this morning I really enjoyed him feeding my son breakfast in the car on the way to work, such a special moment.

    • Erica - Let Why Lead
      February 13, 2014 at 2:53 am

      Oh I know, sometimes we take what we can get! But looking for those sweet little moments (as well as noticing them out loud) makes a big difference. Thanks for visiting!

  • Emma T
    February 12, 2014 at 11:29 pm

    Some lovely ideas here for alternative family occasions to connect.

    We struggle because my husband really isn’t into ‘family’ stuff. He works 7 days a week, never comes out with us as a family, won’t do holidays and doesn’t really talk over meals either. He’s only been like that since having our son. But we do have dinner/tea together (even if N has eaten his tea at nursery, he’ll still sit and have a bit with us), and then N and I have breakfast together most mornings.

    The car is definitely a place that N and I chat together (as much as a 3 year old can), and we go out and about a lot, as well as having lots of storytime together. Hopefully he gets his half family time and lots of conversation from me to make up for the lack of it from his dad.

    • Erica - Let Why Lead
      February 13, 2014 at 2:51 am

      Definitely, Emma! I think having one intentional parent will make a world of difference for your son. And I know a ton of wives are in the same boat. It’s possible, too, that your farmer (as I saw on your blog 🙂 will grow more into his role with time – or connect better with an older child. My husband seems to be enjoying parenting more and more now that our oldest (5 1/2) can do fun stuff with him, like indoor rock climbing and long bike rides. 🙂 Best wishes, and keep in touch!

  • Gina
    February 13, 2014 at 3:06 am

    We sit down to family dinner almost every night, but we do a lot of the other things on your list, too! I especially like big brunches on the weekends, or anytime we get a special day–like tomorrow’s snow day! With the kids home from school and my husband home from work, it’s extra family bonding time.

  • Kelly
    February 22, 2014 at 9:00 pm

    THANK YOU for this article!! I often feel bad that we can’t make dinner happen as a family. This article encouraged me that we are already connecting in other important ways.

    • Erica - Let Why Lead
      February 22, 2014 at 10:53 pm

      For sure, Kelly! I know the feeling! And thank you so much for taking the time to tell me that this helped you ditch a bit of guilt – I’m glad!

  • Sarah
    February 23, 2014 at 2:23 am

    Love this! If just for the fact that someone else confessed to not waking up cheerfully on a Saturday morning 😉
    My kids aren’t even three yet, so I don’t worry too much about us all eating together, though that’s usually what happens unless hubs works the late shift. Actually, I’ve been tempted to do the opposite once or twice a week: feed the kids and put them to bed early, and then make something special for just the two of us. Can you imagine? A dinner with no spilled drinks, thrown utensils, or child clean up involved? 😀 We are usually too hungry to wait though 😉

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