Was it in an old, family-run establishment with sawdust on the floor and service that can’t be beat? Or was it at home, with a perfectly cooked Thanksgiving turkey in the center of a table surrounded by family?

Whatever your favorite dinner was, it wasn’t just the food that made the dinner memorable. It might have been the setting, it might have been the mood, or it might have been the service. More likely, though, it was the company. We may forget the main course of a dinner, but we’ll always remember the magnificent conversations we have while we eat. One of the best ways to connect with teenagers is spending time together, and meal time is a great place to start.

Anyone who has ever dealt with teenagers knows that teenagers love to eat! We know a couple with five sons. When those boys became teenagers, the couple had to buy an extra refrigerator just to keep up with demand. However, teenagers don’t need good food as much as they need good company. Teenagers need a big helping of family conversation with their food.

A 2007 study done by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University discovered significant ties to family dinners:

Compared to teens who eat dinner frequently with their families (five or more family dinners per week), those who have infrequent family dinners (fewer than three per week) are:

  • three and a half times likelier to have abused prescription drugs

  • three and a half times likelier to have used an illegal drug other than marijuana or prescription drugs

  • three times likelier to have used marijuana

  • more than two and a half times likelier to have used tobacco

  • one and a half times likelier to have used alcohol

Those may be some harrowing statistics, but the study also found that among teenagers who earn mostly A’s and B’s at school, 64 percent report that they have family dinner 5–7 times per week. Striving to have family dinner together is clearly worth it, but it can be difficult in today’s busy world.

Make Family Dinnertime a Priority

Families simply have so much going on during the day that we’re lucky to even make dinner, let alone eat it together. For most families, eating together constitutes a special occasion reserved for a few Sundays, holidays, and maybe some cookouts during the summer.

All the extracurricular activities, sporting events, dance practices, and music performances are beneficial for teenagers’ development. However, those beneficial activities sometimes crowd out other important and necessary activities such as family dinnertime. In order to make time for family dinners, families may need to rearrange schedules to accommodate this priority. We’ve found that establishing a regular time for family dinner helps. Dinnertime might be at five in the afternoon, it might be at eight at night, but the important thing is that dinnertime is together.

As your family strives to adjust to this new priority, don’t get discouraged. It will take time for everyone in the family to rearrange his or her schedule. Make small, manageable goals that can help you obtain the larger goal of at least five family dinners a week. Your family could start with the goal of having family dinners at the same time during the weekend. Then, once you’ve accomplished that goal on a regular basis, you can move on to having family dinner a few nights during the week as well. Before too long, you’ll be enjoying each other’s company at least five times a week and experiencing the benefits that come from having a regular family dinnertime—benefits that are even more important than those gained from karate or Boy Scouts.

Not only will establishing a regular dinnertime benefit your teenagers now, but it will also benefit them in the future. Creating the habit in teenagers’ lives now will make it easier for them to have regular dinnertime when they have children of their own.

Divide Dinner Responsibilities

One way to make sure family dinner happens daily is to divide responsibilities and share the work involved with making dinner between every family member. In many families, moms take the lead in preparing dinner every night. Moms are wonderful and seem to have superhuman strength and endurance, but even moms need help. Preparing dinner alone day after day will cause any mom unneeded stress. Luckily, every family member—especially teens—can help. Dinner doesn’t have to be just Mom’s responsibility.

As you assign dinner responsibilities to your teenagers, be an active participant with them as they try to fulfill their responsibilities. Teenagers will learn helpful life skills by preparing dinner, and the conversations you will have with your teenagers as you make and clean up dinner are just as valuable as the ones you have while eating.

Limit Technology Use

Using technology can be a great way for parents to connect with teenagers. Most teenagers use Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest websites daily, so parents can learn much about their teenagers by being Facebook friends with them, following them on Twitter, or pinning something to their teenager’s board on Pinterest. Most teenagers have cell phones; parents can communicate with teenagers by learning their digital language and sending a few text messages or starting a few Snapchats. But even with all the benefits of technology, it still doesn’t replace good old face-to-face communication.

When it comes to cooking dinner, technology helps, and you should use it. Look up new recipes or time saving tips. But when eating dinner, limit technology use. Have every family member, parents included, put away the technology during dinnertime. Try to limit answering phone calls to emergencies only. Set a rule of no texting at the dinner table. Turn off the TV, and turn on family communication.

Give Everyone a Chance to Share

After dinner is prepared, after phones have been put away, and after TVs have been turned off, dinner is served! The food at dinner will seem to taste better because every family member had a hand in its preparation (although make sure no one has a hand in the food itself). No dinner is complete without one final ingredient—communication.

When teenagers were asked when they would prefer to talk to their parents about something that’s important to them, “nearly half of teens (47 percent) agree that during or after dinner is the best time.”4 There’s something about a full stomach that makes everyone happy and encourages conversation. It is important during dinnertime to give everyone a chance to share in the conversation. Teenagers are all different. Some may be quiet compared to their other siblings, and some may enjoy talking and accidentally overshadow other voices, but parents can ensure that all have a say in the conversation because all have something to say.

Often, shy teenagers just need an opportunity to speak, and then it’s difficult for them to stop! We have found some simple ways for parents to encourage conversation at dinner. A great way to find things to talk about is by going around the table and asking how each person’s day went. As teenagers and parents share their day with each other, it brings the whole family closer together. Let the conversation continue and flow freely. Don’t try to dictate the conversation to a desired goal. Simply listen to your teenagers, let them share what they are thinking, and respond to their needs as you discover them. If that doesn’t work, here are a few sure-fire conversation starters:

  • Share something happening among extended family members—a cousin’s graduation or an uncle’s wedding.

  • Go around the table and let everyone respond to a “wh” question. If you could meet anyone, who would it be? If you had a superpower, what would you choose? If you could have a wish, what would it be?

  • Friendly debates can involve everyone. Avoid politics if that causes fights. Stick to topics like do you like the mountains or the ocean? Do you like a nice hotel or camping? Do you like movies or live theater?

  • Share memories. Everyone can talk about a favorite memory of a teacher, a family vacation, or a former house you lived in.

Sometimes a hedgehog won’t come close to your hands to sniff them. When this happens, a brilliant idea is to place a tasty mealworm on the tips of your fingers to encourage the hedgehog over to you. Now, we aren’t advocating bribery as an effective tool when it comes to communicating with teenagers, but some good food on the dinner table can encourage conversation. When we, as parents, make family dinnertime a priority, divide dinner responsibilities, limit technology use, and give everyone a chance to share, we can encourage our teenagers to open up and communicate. Communication between parents and teenagers at the dinner table can build confidence and familiarity between them just as a tasty treat can build confidence between you and a hedgehog. That’s a wonderful way to connect.

Invitations to Action

How can you create meaningful dinner conversations with your teenager? Here are a few suggestions that can make a difference:

  • Bring your family together and discuss when a good time for family dinner would be each week. How will a regular family dinnertime benefit your teenager?

  • What responsibilities can you assign each teenager for dinner this week? How will those responsibilities benefit you and your teenager?

  • What communication skills can teenagers develop as they talk and listen during dinner? How can you help them develop those skills?

  • Think about the statistics presented in this chapter. Why do you think family dinners have such a big effect on a teenager’s life? What effects have you seen or could you hope to see in your own home as you implement family dinnertime?

This article is an excerpt from Brad Wilcox and Jerrick Robbins’ How to Hug a Hedgehog.

Image source: Shutterstock

Like the article? We bet you’ll love this book:
A teen’s job is to be difficult and most do it really, really well. But what about you? You want to hug that hedgehog, right? But you don’t want to get hurt. No problem. With entertaining stor...
How to Hug a Hedgehog

Brad Wilcox