Four Simple Tips For Family Dinners

33 years – that’s how many years Russ and I have been sitting down to dinner together.

Actually, more if you count the cafeteria at Seattle Pacific University.

There were dinners at the group home where we worked the first year of our marriage.

Later we dined in our 6th-floor apartment near Pike Place Market, me eating with one hand while simultaneously nursing our first baby.

Across the country, several years later, we shared dinner each night with the sisters of Alpha Phi sorority where we were house parents at Cornell University. Depending on who you ask, our children either entertained or irritated the women. Likely a little of both.

Last week I wrote, For the First Time In 13 Years, a post about our table expanding over the years to accommodate our growing family.

The table, our 10th wedding anniversary gift to one another, is now contracting as leaves are removed to adjust to the family we’re becoming.

The post prompted questions from readers.

How do we “do” family dinner? What does it look like?

Let me offer four basic tips:

1.  Make dinner a happy time.

This is not the time to discipline children, discuss failings or disappointments, or talk about emails received from teachers, unless they happen to be glowing reports.

Although it’s tempting, I also don’t think dinner is the time to be heavy on teaching table manners. There are other meals during the day and, at our house, dinner is the one meal we share with dad; I don’t want to spend the entire time harping on manners. Soft reminders, yes, constant reminders, no.

I want my children to love dinner time.

I’m also not extremely strict about food. I know lots of folks disagree with me on this, but food is not a hill I’m going to die on with my kids.

Selfishness, taking so much others can’t get enough, yes. Cleaning your plate? No.

I wrote this post, Our Two-Step Approach to Food Challenges, about a method we came up with for helping one of our kids overcome picky eating habits.


2. Have Conversation.

Dinner is the time we try to have conversation, even if we need to provide structure to make it happen. In addition to learning how to speak, the kids also practice listening to one another.

In our home, it looks like this. Once the food is served, rather than everyone talking at once, or the one most talkative child dominating the conversation, we go around the table giving everyone an opportunity to speak.

They have two options:

They can share something interesting about their day – it can be good, bad, or something they learned. It just has to be something they found interesting.

Alternately, they can answer three questions: share one thing they did that was kind, one thing that was brave, and one time they failed that day. This teaches kids it’s okay to fail; even their parents fail every day. Sometimes I share a funny failure or a time I was afraid to do something and then was brave enough to do it. It helps them see we are still learning too.


3. Keep it Nice and Simple

If having a family dinner is new to you, keep it simple.

Create a two-week rotating menu and follow it until it’s so easy to accomplish you are bored. If that’s too much for you, make it a one-week rotating menu.

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Set the table and sit at it – better yet, teach your children to set the table. I love a pretty table, even if it simply means candles each night.

We lost our routines during baseball season and I need to find my way back before football season starts.

I found this post in my archives from 2009, Large Family Tips: Setting the Table.

As I reflect back on those years, I’m rather astounded I had time to even think about it.

It must be evidence of how desperately I was clinging to normalcy in our lives in a time of trauma and chaos.

Which brings me to point #4.


4. This is Not a Burden to Bear.

What I mean by this is, do not add creating better dinner times as a burden on your already weary shoulders.

I know many of you are parenting kids who had a hard start in life. These little (or not so little) ones, joined your family after they were harmed in some way, often unintentionally, but harm was done.

It may be all you can do to put a meal on the table at all.

My tip for you?

Set the bar low. 

Try to put one food on the table each person likes – if possible. Maybe it’s rice, or fruit, or chicken.

[Bonus tip: If you have lots of little ones, cut meat into small pieces before putting it on the table. It saves time after everyone is gathered making for happier kids, and it’s far easier to cut up meat on a cutting board in the kitchen than at each plate.]

Put each hard kid next to an adult or responsible big kid, if you have one.

Serve your most food-traumatized child first, even though she has to wait to begin eating until the rest of the family is served. She will see there is enough and her fears may be slightly calmed.

When your most challenging child is done eating, see if she can tolerate telling you about something interesting in her day, or one thing she did that was kind. If not, see if she can tolerate listening to one of her siblings answer the same question. Then, if she is anxious to leave, excuse her from the table – taking her dishes with her.

Maybe she’ll make it through listening to one sibling each night this week. Next week maybe she’ll answer the question herself and listen to a sibling.

Perhaps you’re reading this thinking, I can’t imagine dinner where there isn’t major drama. I hear you, sister.

When Kalkidan was young, we had one night a week when she had dinner with Aunt Michele.

That was one night each week when we all relaxed and knew we would have a calm(ish) dinner.

She grew, she learned, she healed. Thanks be to God.

And even with all that, I don’t think dinner was ever easy for her – but she learned to manage her fears.

I could write so much more about family dinners and gathering around our table.

If you have questions, please leave them in the comments. I would love to share thoughts, and hopefully wisdom, from my thirty years of mothering – ten years with children from “hard places.”

I’m in Seattle as you read this. Please pray for my father who is having open heart surgery tomorrow, 7/11/17. I would be very grateful.

With love to you and courage for the journey,


P.S. Just in case you noticed, in the pic at the top of the post, Wogauyu is covering his mouth attempting to resist the urge to blow out Beza’s birthday candles. It makes me smile every time I see it.



This post may contain Amazon Affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.


  1. Sonya
    July 10, 2017

    Such great timing for me, Lisa.
    You have great tips & we are doing lots of them already!
    But I needed the specific way you talked about “your most challenging child” & asking them to listen to one sibling’s story (or share one thing) before they get up. Our 14 yr old has been allowed to ask to be excused as soon as she is done, because sitting there afterwards is so stressful for her. I know she has trauma associated with not having enough to eat or drink until age 4.
    Can you help me understand her fears & behaviors better? Is it just that she is stopping herself from constant (fear-based) eating? What fears come out when she sits & chats after the meal? I’m trying to remain compassionate, but it is challenging (10 years in). I will think about how to approach her, to encourage her to stay just a bit longer.

    1. Lisa Qualls
      July 10, 2017

      It’s hard to know about your daughter, but my child who comes to mind has a hard time tolerating waiting for anything at all. When this child is ready to move on – it’s time to go. I think it may be a sensory challenge as much as anything – too many people in close proximity. Listening to other people is supremely irritating. Answering a question is not a whole lot better. However, these are life skills, so we continue to try, one dinner at a time.

  2. Cathy Lankenau-Weeks
    July 10, 2017

    This is a totally crazy tip and will not work for many, but for us the family dinner game changer has been having our adorable small fluffy dog join us at the table. He has his own seat between my daughters, they hold his ears while we sing grace, and he is so cute that it just lightens the mood. We went through years of extremely tense dinners tho we kept at it. I grew up with nightly family dinners and just felt it was very important for connection even when my challenging child was so hostile and controlling we could barely speak. She has made huge amounts of progress, thanks be to God. However, having the dog join us has been a great strategy! Wish I could post a picture of him waiting at the head of the table for everyone to come join him but I’m not sure I see an option to do that.

    1. Lisa Qualls
      July 10, 2017

      I love that, Cathy! Just imagining your dog at the table makes me smile. This is a great example of the flexibility required as we parent children with trauma histories. Our kids aren’t like typical kids, and we can’t always parent in typical ways. Cathy, back to your dog and kids – can you email a pic to me?

  3. Jill
    July 10, 2017

    So thankful I stumbled upon your blog tonight. Our sweet 4 kiddos have been at grandmas where meal times are different. Thank you for the gentle reminder to be patient and not press the manors; I enjoy the joyful & peaceful dinner much more ! Also appreciate the questions you referred to ask each person (brave, kindness, failure). Great advice 🙂
    Praying now for your father’s OHS tomorrow. Our sweet William who is 7 months old is 8 weeks out from his OHS. What fear and anxiety I had in the days and weeks leading up to it. Prayers over you all as you prepare and wait. 💗

    1. Lisa Qualls
      July 10, 2017

      So thankful you stumbled on it too, Jill. I’m glad my words helped you. Thank you so much for your prayers – many blessings on your sweet one.

  4. Nomi
    July 11, 2017

    Hi Lisa! I have been reading every single one of your blogs and you are truly a hero whose wisdom and grace has gotten me through some very thoug times. I live in the heart of Seattle so please contact me if there is absolutely anything I can do for you or your Dad at any time. I have two kiddos who I bring to Children’s hospital weekly and am a first grade teacher with the summer off. It would mean so much to me to be able to repay you for all the comfort that your beautiful words have brought me over the years!

    1. Lisa Qualls
      July 11, 2017

      Nomi, thank you for your beautiful heart and generous offer. We are down in Tacoma and not at a hospital in Seattle otherwise I might take you up on your offer! It blesses me to know my words are helping you – thank you for encouraging me.


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