Family Leadership – Another Duh! and Wow! Moment for Me


Isn’t it crazy sometimes how the simplest things turn out to be the most powerful?  But sometimes it takes some objective research to startle you back to the obvious.  That’s what happened to me last week when I had Professor William Doherty of the University of Minnesota on my radio program.  Since you likely face a busy work December, holiday season franticness, but also the impending opportunity for New Year’s resolutions, I thought it made sense to share Bill’s insight with you.

What would you guess is THE most significant activity that you can do to support your children’s psychological and cognitive development?  Is it diet, rest, hugs, reading?  Doherty says unequivocally that the most significant activity is to have frequent meals together with your entire family. Doherty backs up his findings with a boatload of research.  For instance, one study compared families which had more than five or more meals together per week with those who had two or less.  They found that in the latter families, children were three times more likely to use marijuana, 2 1/2 times more likely to smoke cigarettes, and 1 1/2 times more likely to use alcohol.  Similarly, in studies of academic achievement, the number of family meals was more important than anything “even things like the hours that children studied.

It’s probably not surprising to you that running directly in opposition to this research, over the past 30 years there has been a significant decrease in the amount of family meal time in America (although there is some evidence to suggest that this has begun to change).  Professor Doherty gave some marvelous ideas on my show about how to improve both the quality and quantity of meals you spend together as a family (I’ve put a few beneath the body of today’s RFL and would welcome a hearty blog participation on this).

I can’t help but think that the meal is a powerful ritual for more than just the family.  In workplaces where we care so deeply for each other and spend so darned much time together, I wonder if we don’t gain greater power, productivity, and compassion by creating rituals of eating together (maybe it’s part of why Google has all that food around their shops!).  Irrespective of that, I sure appreciated Doherty’s reminder of the extreme importance of eating frequently with my wife and children.  I hope it helps you too, to

Lead with your best self,


Here’s a little more from my conversation with Bill Doherty:

First, if this topic interests you, pick up his book, The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties. It mixes theory and research with very practical thoughts.  Here are a few things I picked up from Bill:

1. Create rituals around the meal.  For example, set the table together.  Or have appetizers like you would at a nice dinner party (even if it’s carrots and celery!).
2. Don’t start asking all the questions that we parents ask, ’til people have a little food in them (especially if you’re eating late as many of us tend to these days).  I know I’m crabby, and I wouldn’t want someone pressing me with questions about my day before I’ve had a bite to eat.
3. Don’t ask those going nowhere questions that frustrate them as much as much as their answers frustrate you,  “How was your day?’  “Fine.”  Ugggh.
4. Instead, pay closer attention to what they’re interested in talking about.  Ask them about stuff they like to talk.
5. Make it a priority to eat together.  Period.  Give them a snack if you know you’re going to eat late; the social part trumps the 3-square meals thing.  Change your own darned schedule if you need to.  And when those teens have activities every night at dinner, sometimes you have to “be the parent,” says Bill, and lead!  You explain that the family meal is too important and so they have to cut something loose.  What a concept that is.

I’d love for us to share more comments about this, especially what’s working for you?!

  • Hi Dan
    I couldn’t agree with this more. I work with young people who have a variety of eating disorders and the first thing I tell them to do, and their parents, is to have regular family meals together , breakfast, dinner , lunch , whatever they can muster. It is a time to create a peaceful moment, a moment to touch base, connect,and nourish each other and ourselves at the same time. Staying connected is the key.

    Other rituals for staying connected are also important. I like to drive with Hannah, my daughter . I still drive her to her many activiites , even now that whe has her own car. It is a great opportunity to have a few uninterrupted moments together , going here and there, with no homework or computer to get in the way. Sometimes we are so engrossed in conversation that I avoid going home and merely keep driving around so we can have a longer chat.Hannah seems to like this too. We drive home at night from Detroit where our family lives and have wonderful conversations in the dark sitting next to one another. Actually some of our most important and difficult conversations occurred this way . The dinner table is a place where that can and does happen as well.

    I also sit in her room and read in the evening while she does her homework. Most of the time she likes the company. She lets me k now when she doesn’t and I respect that too.

    Anyway we, as families, can stay connected to our kids and especially our teens,in a daily way is going to serve us all and strengthen our family bond and the values we are trying to impart on our kids

  • Dan
    I have never commented on your blog before, but this is one topic that has recently become very close to my heart.With the frantic running around that I do everyday with work and school and Aarushi’s classes, we have decided to sit down together and eat as a family for the last 10 days. And I can already see the change happening. My daughter has started eating more, we get to know what is going on in our lives and we also discuss fun and stimulating topics like science. We have also started talking about values at dinner table and I seem to be enjoying it myself.We have come closer as a family and things are looking better.

    • Dan,

      I found the high school years, with two busy daughters, to be the most challenging in terms of meals together. I love to cook, but they never seemed to want much to eat,or to linger long. My friend and I, both single parents, instituted Sunday night “family dinners,” with family being pretty loosely interpreted. We would get together and cook, and often ate outside. The kids knew to show up for sure at 6:30, and they would linger, because talking to someone else’s family is sometimes more fun (even though we were all at the table) and questions were asked that never would have occurred to me to ask! It seemed that with a two more conversationalists, and the ritualization of the event, everyone enjoyed the evenings more, cooking was more rewarding, and I would often hear the kids tell friends they couldn’t meet up until after “family night,” even without them asking if they could. When my son came home from college for a summer, he was sure never to miss family dinners, a great chance to get a delicious meal and talk to NOW interesting adults, as well as newly-grown up sisters! It turned out to be a wonderful tradition, one that partly made up for the lack of dinners together during the week. And it often kept the kids home for the remainder of the evening, their own choice.

  • Dan

    My wife and I are the parents of two college students. One goes to U of M and the other goes to Grand Valley. Since they are both in state it is possible for them to come home on some weekends. One ritual we all like very much is Sunday brunch. The kids really enjoy when we pull out all the stops to have lox and bagles and a wide variety of goodies. No one is too rushed and we have a chance to catch up on things. I can’t wait till the holidays when we can have many more times like this.

  • Have been aware of the power of family rituals since I found some articles about this topic many years ago relating to my work with Head Start families. One thing that we did to celebrate the beginning of the Christmas holiday at our home was to put candy in our children’s shoe (outside their bedroom door)on Kris Kringle Day, which is Dec 5th. They had been doing it at their parochial school for some years. Once they went on to another school, we continued the fun ritual. One year when they were teenagers, I forgot to get the candy. They didn’t hesitate to let me know that I had forgotten.It really bothered them that I had broken the sequence. It meant a lot to them–a small thing, but a link to their younger days and pleasant memories. I still try to remember with a little candy for them on Dec 5th,and it has been many years. Thanks for bringing this important subject out to folks–please keep it up!

  • Dan,

    I know first hand that family meals work! Yes, it can be difficult pulling them off.. we have 5 kids and schedules can be crazy. You have to be flexible! We pray before we eat, that happens to be our ritual, it sets the stage. I have learned not to throw out the “big question” or “going nowhere” question as Bill states. They usually fall flat.. rather, I interject on smaller topics to help keep the conversation going.

    Our biggest laughs as a family happens at the dinner table usually around the most mundane or simple issues or insights. I have learned too to avoid gossip about other people or subjects we know little about. With 7 of us at the table bickering is bound to happen. I try to move the conversation beyond the “us” to the “we”.. or in other words how is my family interacting with the community.


    • We have 4 kids (5/7/16/19) and recently an exchange student so I appreciate a busy lifestyle. My husband and I both work FT. We all eat together every night and are sometimes short only one (the eldest is in college)and we pray before we eat. If someone is not hungry or ate with friends after school, they join the family for the mealtime as it is an experience as much as a meal. This ritual has provided time for discussion points from the serious to the silliest of topics and everyone gets to speak. The tv must be left off during the meal so that whomever is speaking gets full attention. Manners are learned here, too. In addition, everyone has to help prepare or clean up. The payoffs have been tremendous! Not only are our children academically successful, they can socialize, convey their thoughts articulately, and they can carry lightweight conversations as well as serious ones (even the little guys do a fair job). This is not the case with visiting friends (at least when they first arrive). The older kids have friends that now come often just for the family environment and when they are in Rome. . . .we treat them like Romans. My oldest daughter’s three best friends come “home” to visit us when they are in from college now and that is a good feeling.

  • Re: There’s a difference between a meal and a feeding.
    I agree, mealtimes are our time together. The family social fabric is largely woven during “food experiences.” Eating on the run without positive interaction is a “feeding,” and meals are where we try to have rituals, and practice good manners.

    Sharing and respect are some of the most obvious values. The Meal is also a time to learn about helping others. Kids help prepare the food, pass food around the table, help to clean up afterward, and view some special recipes as a gift. They already give and receive these gifts.

    We explore new cultures in food selections. We have “adopted” food cultures from many other countries. Our favorites have become family rituals over time. (Especially at Christmas!)

    We have always taken photographs at birthdays, holidays and outdoor grilling and parties. Over the past year I have started a family cookbook recording the recipes and using those photos, with comments about how we celebrated. It is wonderful! I have given each grandchild a copy with some of their own cooking shown prominently.

    Some old recipes come down from the late 1800s and one from the Revolutionary war. My 1943 birthday photograph has the story of WWII food rationing and how my Mother saved Crisco and sugar to make a cake. We children stomped on cans to be recycled into planes and tanks for the war effort.

    So I suggest that people might want to make a recipe album with the family “Herstory” as distinguished from history. This would be a very personal gift for loved ones.

    • Pat,
      Very cool idea. Might be some “his”story in there, too. My two brothers know their artichoke hearts from their hearts of palm. On the other hand my wife . . . never mind that.

  • Don’t forget that eating a meal isn’t the only time to really connect as a family. Creating the meal together provides an opportunity for kids to learn as you bond. I think it is very important for kids to learn to cook and to appreciate the preparation that goes into a meal, along with teaching lessons for being independent and self-sufficient. Kids of almost any age can help in some fashion with meal prep.

  • Dan,
    I doubt you’ll hear any disagreement that eating together works wonders for families, but you’re still going to have readers who don’t know how to fit it in. While we do eat together as a family a lot, during this time of year that becomes very difficult. With sports, school concerts, end-of-year work deadlines, holiday parties, etc., all of our schedules are full. I just looked at our calendar and both kids have sports and/or play practices every single night this week. I see no opportunities to eat dinner together as a family until next Sunday night. So what’s working for us? We find other ways to eat together. Sometimes we’ll get up a little early and make pancakes for breakfast. Even a 15-20 minute breakfast together helps set a nice tone for the entire day. Last week, after an especially awful morning of crabbing and whining by everyone, I popped in to my daughter’s school and ate lunch with her. That turned the day around for both of us.

    • Martha,
      Great comments. What your message speaks with volume is that you have made it a priority. Once you do see that importance, you may have to (or get to?) be inventive, as you have been.
      For so many of us, we give in to the brutal schedules of our kids, as well as our own. We also give in as others have written to our teens’ seeming indifference or even resistance to us and to being together. One of the thngs about the research that struck me is that teens overwhelmingly tell surveyers that they appreciate meals together. It’s up to us to convene them and then figure outhow they are something other than irrelevant adult-talk, or the Spanish Inquisition.

  • Family Meals
    Recently we have been exploring a cultural value that was relatively new to me. The Lansing area group called LOCALVORS have been promoting the eating of local foods. The benefit is both to the consumer and the local farms.

    One good thing is knowing what is in your food. Recent scares about E-coli in salad and in hamburger have made us aware of the potential for harm in common food industry practices. Hormones and pesticides may be in some other foods.
    The Lansing City market vendors have made a special point of offering fresh, wholesome, organic foods and label accordingly.

    Another idea seen at the City Market is the 100 Mile Diet. We were able to do our Thanksgiving with most of our food coming from the local area –delicious! I even found flour milled locally, and talked to the Miller.

    In this way, food connects our family with the local farm community.

    Eating local food greatly reduces the energy consumed in transporting food from across the country. This benefit is often overlooked when shopping at Big Box stores.

    Two things come next. We will join the MSU Community Supported Agriculture program. (People pay an amount of money and receive a part of the produce)
    We also intend to produce some of our own food.

    This is all an adventure, a journey that our family takes beyond the dinner table. It is an extension of the values embedded in family meals.

  • Dan,

    I agree with all the comments and the power of the meal. What I am fighting is the power of the bulge. While growing up, we ate dinner together every night. The meal was not particularly healthy and we all got fatter. I’ve now gotten control over that with the help of weight watchers BUT find it difficult to create a meal worth sitting down for…that isn’t full of “treats”. That is counter intuitive to the idea. In the comments provided, there are lots of “special” meals referenced. However, these type of meals with that fat and calorie content is not sustainable. The balance of time together at a meal and the content of the meal itself …matters

    • To Kelly:
      Why on earth would you think that WW meals “are not worth sitting down for”? Food is nutrition and helps your body grow. Everything is not supposed to be “filled with fat” and and food worth sitting down for does not have to be “treats”. A chicken breast and plain baked potatoe and green beans without butter is what you should be teaching your family to eat. It is NOT counterintuitive to the idea. You do not have to “bribe” your family to sit down. If this is a change, it gets initially “forced” on the family. “If you don’t like this meal, than you get nothing” This is not counterintuitive because the whole idea is about discipline, family values and the meal table being one of the places to learn that. Children and families need structure to promote nurture.

  • While I agree with the premise that family mealtime is extremely important, I have to question the variables under consideration. Organized families with day jobs tend to be middle class families who are able to function well within the schedules and demands of the workaday/school world. I teach to a primarily at-risk population, and witness the constraints on my students’ families on a daily basis. Chronic tardiness and absence–sometimes due to an empty gas tank in the family car and illnesses that linger–due to a lack of health insurance for doctor visits, etc. are common. Add to that parental work schedules on afternoon and evening shifts while children are left to care for themselves or their younger sibling, and things begin to break down. I know that on the other end of the spectrum, middle to upper middle class families can overbook their children’s schedules with excessive activities and that’s whom this premise really addresses; in that case…wouldn’t it be great if all families had this problem?

  • My wife and I both agree and support the comments related to family meals.

    Another thing my wife and I made a point of when our children were younger was reading to them every night before bedtime. My wife is a true believer that reading is the foundation to everything you do in life. Our two sons are now young adults and both enjoy reading, doing great in school and both great in public settings.

    • I agree totally with Ron Ketelhut. As a Mom who also had 2 children and had a full time job, I was busy.
      The bedtime story was the constant in the childrens lives growing up. From the time they were toddlers, they each had
      favorite books and we went to the Library every 2 weeks.
      Yes they both turned out to be great readers.

    • This is so true. I still read to my 6 and 10 year old every night. This is our time together, as I, too, am a single working mom. My boys love this and I know we are closer because of it. If the day has been rushed or difficult for some reason, this is our way to end it with snuggling!

  • In the Family and Consumer Science classes that I teach at Alma High School, we discuss the importance of family meal time in much the same way as your message did today. Research shows that it is very benefical to all family members. This is a fantastic opportunity for modeling healthy eating habits, positive communication skills and strong relationship building techniques. Students are given assignments to host special events for their families, whether it be a meal prepared by the teen (perhaps with other family members)or a family fun night. The positive comments are overwhelming and the long term possibilities are endless!

  • While I don’t doubt the validity of the correlation of these data, I think to imply causation is an oversimplification and misuse of data. We as educators should be more knowledgable than to suggest causation and to further the ignorant misuse of statistical results. If a disfunctional family with multitudinous issues could fix their kids by simply eating together, as this article suggests, it would be wonderful.

    • Lisa raises an important point that I talked about briefly in my on-air interview about family meal rituals. Recent studies have found beneficial associations with family dinners even when controlling for the overall quality of family relationships. The studies also control for a variety of family socioeconomic factors. While we cannot prove causality in correlational studies, we can make a reasonable case that family meals carry special benefits. By the way, no one is suggesting that it’s just the act of sitting down to a meal together that leads to the benefits; it’s what goes on as families share meals together.

  • Dan,
    I too have never commented on your blog, but I can testify to the importance of this – even to couples without children in building healthy, strong adults! Years ago, my husband and I committed to spending at least 3-4 nights a week having dinner together, not including weekends. Some weeks it’s harder than others, but even without kids, we found ourselves running from various work, personal and volunteer commitments. When we made a concentrated effort, we shopped wiser, ate healthier and it became a priority. We realize our health and time together comes first.

    Heather Carmona

  • Dan,

    As a student who is finally coming to the age where we realize that what our parents have done for us was, in fact, for our own good, I have to say that I have mixed feelings about this. My family rarely ate together, and I am beginning to see the effect in my two younger sisters. They seem to be following in my low grade footsteps, but are also experimenting more with drugs, something I have never done. My parents are doing the best they can, given the situation. I have to say though, the family dinner is not the sole reason for this. I believe I turned out fine in leiu of an organized dinner situation, and I further believe that having youth sacrifice after school activity to eat is borderline obesity promotion. I think the real deal behind the family dinner is family interaction. Engaged parents make a difference, no matter the time. Whether it be after school on the couch, playing games together, coming to sport games/plays/band concerts. It’s the family that matters. Not the meal.


    • James,

      Thanks for sharing your candid thoughts.

      As someone who’s sat in literally hundreds of bleachers over the years, I think there IS something about the meal. It’s about ALL being together, it’s about talking and listening, and it’s about an ancient ritual of breaking bread together. This is not to say that “being there” in the stands or the audience doesn’t matter – I’m sure it does – but the meal is special.

      I also suspect that organized meals might do a lot better for the obesity issue that you and others have written about than the entropy and fast-food-on-the-run lives that many of us lead.


  • I’m going to chime in on behalf of the folks who wonder about the correlation/causation debate. Two-parent families with stable schedules are likeliest to be able to create family meal time. I’d be curious to see how significant the differences would be if they were disaggregated by income, number of parents in residence, etc.

    That said, I’m 24, in grad school, and lucky to have had a bunch of meals with my folks.

    • As I replied to Lisa, the major studies have controlled for social class factors, so the findings are not just a byproduct of being middle class. The same for family structure–one or two parent families. The findings keep coming out significant.

  • Dan, your right on about having meals together. We have always tried to have dinner together as a family every evening. It doesn’t always work but I would say we manage it about 80% of the time. Even if we sometimes have to eat later or earlier it is always worth it. We have a ritual of saying a prayer before the meal then going around the table and stating something we are thankful for. When we have other kids over for dinner they even chime in. We believe there is always something you can think of to be thankful for, even on your worse days. We often find out what’s been going on in our kids lives by sharing a meal, not even by asking. They just seem to start talking when we aren’t. I have always enjoyed our dinners together and I think my kids would agree.

    For the past several years, my co-workers and I have gathered together for lunch on a daily basis and it has helped us grow as a team and as individuals. We have become friends as well as co-workers and have made a point of celebrating each others birthdays as well. Sharing meals with others makes the day much more enjoyable.

  • Dan,

    It doesn’t matter how old your family is. My 28 year old daughter decided we were going to have Thanksgiving at my mother’s house who is 91. My daughter planned the whole meal. What each one of us were making and taking up to AuGres so Bushia didn’t have to cook. Of course I had the Turkdy, Stuffing and Gravy. Marsha, Rob, Denise, Charlie, Sarah, Russ, and I drove up to AuGres for Thanksgiving.
    This Sat. was Russ’s 67th birday. I cooked home made spagetti sauce for 2 days. I had to meet Charlie at M13 & 57 to pick up the dogs so Russ and him could play horse shoes in Clio. When I got back I accidently put the spagetti souace on high instead of low. It burned but it didn’t matter to the family, they ate it anyway to celebrate his birthday.

  • Hi, Dan-

    My sister, Molly Cotant, just loves you and recently heard you speak when her husband, Jim Harrington, was awarded the Preventionist of the Year Award for the health department. She and I have been talking a lot about my sons and she thought I would enjoy this blurb from you.

    My two boys and I eat dinner together every night. It’s not easy as a single working mom, but we do it. One thing that I read and have found to be so great is that instead of asking open ended questions, be very specific. For instance, instead of asking the dreaded “how was your day?” that you refer to, I will now say: “Jacob, tell me one thing that you wrote today” or “Simon, tell me one thing that Mrs. Powers said to you today”. My boys are 6 and 10 and they really seem to respond to these specific questions. When we eat with my parents or have other guests, they are included in this “game” and we learn things about them, too! The boys love it and I’m finally getting answers other than “nothing” or “I don’t remember”.

    I’m really hoping that if my boys learn now that I am interested in their lives and that they can talk to me, they will still be talking to me when the issues they are dealing with are bigger.

    Want to read a great novel about family leadership? Try “Peace Like a River” by Lief Enger. It is my favorite book of all time!

    Thanks, Maggie

  • What a great piece! To know that it doesn’t take rocket science to save our kids from peril. Common sense is all we need. And to pause throughout the day, whatever day it is, to share a meal and celebrate the act of eating together.

  • I agree family time and mealtime are very important. For a family that has dwindled (1 in college and 1 out of college) to a single teen boy at home it is difficult given the schedules of the parents haven’t improved – working 40-60 hours a week on 1 hand, and on another forced to unemployment, looking for work and going back to school.

    Given that, we try to make mealtime at least once a week and even when we’re all on the fly, we try to convene in some sort of way, when the late comer is finally home and trying to refill their fuel and energy levels.

    Another thing that sounds counter to family time, but actually helps us build our relationships, is when we sit down in the evening and have the TV on. It is interesting if all 3 of us are in the room to see the exchanges that take place (men, even 16 year old men, do not deal well with face to face discussions – even at the dinner table) so when you put us all facing a tv or a game or something else – the flow of real conversation can amaze me (the lone female left).

    Anyway, reach out to your family anyway you can – we all need to be heard and listened to and have the ability to hear eachother’s angles too.

    great comments and ideas by all!

  • This is an excellent topic. I agree with many comments about be careful of thinking just eating together will achieve what you want. Having training in counseling and listening skills, I how hard it is to ask open ended questions that really invite the other to decide what they want to talk about. Even with LOTS of training.
    In addition I’ve been overweight most of my life, and am following closely the information about how to help your child avoid having an eating disorder. What gets served at meals and how children can be allowed to make decisions about how much and when to eat healthy foods are important additions to the suggestions about making meals a positive experience for the whole family.


  • Hey Martha, when our daughter was in a theatre production and the other in swimming, dinner was at 9pm. So we opted for meal time at breakfast. To simplify, crockpot breakfasts (oatmeal variations) and makeahead egg/meat (or veggie)/cheese casseroles worked for us. That way, it was either ready to eat in the moring or, we could make it the night before, put it in the oven while everyone got ready then eat before leaving but either way, the prep was done. Big meals and no fuss with everyone home. But it was at 5:30 am. Just a suggestion. I learned this trick from another busy family.

  • Just catching up on old mail and found this article. I recently visited a daughter at college. I usually bring a simple meal for us to share in her apartment. We invited a friend of hers to join us. As we ate our soup and bread, talking and laughing, she kept saying over and over how wonderful it was that we would “eat together as a real family” and that she couldn’t remember the last time her family did this. Even when the “kids” are in their 20s, they still need meals together. And how sad that something which seems so simple and that my daughter and I take for granted is something this young lady pined for.

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