How family dinners add up over time

A small daily investment amounts to hundreds of hours of family time per year. Here's how to calculate the potential.

How family dinners add up over time

How family dinners add up over time 1024 687 Looking out Loud

A recent poll found that the average US adult eats only three dinners a week with their family. At the same time, 60% of Americans said they believe that families should eat every dinner together. Other studies show similar findings, with only 30% of families eating dinner together regularly.

This surprised me at first. Family dinners are baked into our daily schedule, and it’s without a doubt one of the most important staples in our routine. My wife and I were both fortunate to grow up with shared family meals being important, so it seemed obvious to us that we’d continue the tradition in our home.

That’s not to say it’s always easy: it takes meal planning, commitment, and bending around work and school activities. And (full confession) some days it’s not very enjoyable: stopping what you’re doing to sit with small kids who don’t sit still, or when you have a busy mind that wants to run elsewhere, can be a real challenge.

But overall it’s a huge net gain, allowing time to tell stories, ask questions, and create shared memories.

And as the weeks and months go by, even a small mealtime commitment adds up.

How much time do you spend eating with your family?

I was curious to know how much mealtime our family spends together. With the tables below, you can quickly calculate how much time you spend eating together too.

In the first table, the left column represents the average number of minutes per meal, and the top row represents the number of meals per week. (I’ve included up to 9 weekly meals, considering a potential 7 dinners a week, plus 2 lunches on the weekends. If you share more meals than this, you either have a very young child, or you’re incredibly committed—I commend you in either case).

Meals/Wk →
Min/Meal ↓
How many hours per week do you save for family meals?

For example, in our house, with few exceptions, we eat dinner together every night—7 days a week—for about 45 minutes (= 5.25 hours). Some days are shorter, some longer, but let’s start there. We also tend to have lunch together on the weekends, let’s say about 30 minutes for Saturday and Sunday lunch (= 1 hour).

Add those up, and that’s about 6.25 hours a week that we’re sitting at the table together.

Now take that number and plug it into the table below to see how much that adds up over a year. For example, my 6.25 hours is just over the 6 hours per week (left column), so let’s say about 325 hours per year. Divide that by 24 hours in a day, and I see we spend around 13.5 days per year eating together. That’s almost two full weeks a year!

Hours per week= Hours per year= (24-hour) days together
How does your family mealtime add up over a year?

→ These tables work for any activity, like bedtime routines and the time spent taking your kids to school each day. There’s a lot of hidden time in those everyday moments.

The kind of dinner time that matters

Of course, simply sitting at the table together isn’t the point.

A single meal with everyone present and happy is worth infinitely more than a dozen grumpy, disconnected hours.

So that’s the first goal: just a single meal that affords a positive, shared experience. Then you can start to extend it to more meals.

Here’s a kick-starter to help make it happen.

Step 1: Make it a simple, team routine

Everything’s easier with a plan. Start by having a single dedicated day and time: Tuesday at 6pm, or whatever works for your family. Our target time is 6:30-7pm. On days with kids’ activities, we sit as soon as everyone’s home.

Don’t feel like you need to recreate a Norman Rockwell painting. It can be as simple as sandwiches if that’s what it takes to get people to the table with minimal stress.

And make it a team sport. Talk with your partner about what help is needed from all sides to make it happen: meal planning, shopping, preparation, setting the table, doing dishes, getting everyone to the table on time. There’s a lot to do, and it doesn’t happen by itself.

Step 2: Prepare before you arrive

I have an alarm set for 6pm telling me to wind down my workday. It gives me just enough heads-up so the “dinner time!” call doesn’t come as a frustrating shock. On my better days, it sends me toward the kitchen to help with the preparation.

I also try to come with ideas to prompt conversations and positive interactions, in case they don’t unfold naturally. Some days everyone has something to share. Other days it’s radio silence, so it’s good to come prepared with a question to ask others, a story to share, or an activity to do. (I’ll soon be sharing tons of prompts I’ve tried that worked in upcoming posts—stay tuned).

Step 3: Surrender to the time

If you’re human, your mind likely tends to wander off—to that work problem you need to sort out, to that conversation you wish you wouldn’t have had. But when you sit down at the table, try to drop everything that’s not sitting right in front of you.

It’s easy for others to say ‘be present.’ It’s much harder to actually be present. Start by trying to catch your mind when it wanders. Notice you’re lost in thought, and come back to now.

Another exercise: Listen actively when others talk. If your partner or child is sharing a story, a joke, or upcoming event to be aware of, it’s because it’s important to them. Listen.

A final practice: be curious, not judgmental. If your child, or partner, shares a story that makes no sense to you, try to respond with open curiosity “Why did you like it?” or “Tell me more,” rather than “How could you possibly like that?” or “That makes no sense.”

The goal is to create a space where everyone feels included, like they’re part of the conversation, like they matter.

Small habits add up over time. Even short meals together sum up to lots of shared memories as the weeks and months go by.

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