5 Things I Always Do to Make Family Dinners Fun for Everyone — Even Teenagers!

published Nov 5, 2021
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Credit: Kristin Rogers Photography/Stocksy

For the longest time, it seemed our dinner table was always full. But the years of using plastic plates and sippy cups and cutting up everyone’s food have given way to real dishes and glasses, and then one, two, three children missing from our nightly meal. 

Of course, that’s what’s supposed to happen, as your kids grow and move on to the next stage of life. But I noticed last fall how quickly time was passing. I’m certainly not old, and we’re at least five years from an empty nest. All the same, it was time to take the long view: Now I understand the importance of instituting Sunday dinners before the kids all move out.

While not a tradition either my husband or I grew up with, I appreciate the idea of family gatherings on a Sunday to catch up and share a meal. So, we’re starting now — with kids ages 13, 14, 17, 19, and 20! Here are five things I’ve learned to do to make sure Sunday dinners are worth coming to.

1. Dress things up.

Thankfully, my kids appreciate efforts to be a little fancy. At our first Sunday dinner last fall, I lit candles, set the table with our nice plates, and even laid out cloth napkins! One kid said it was just like Thanksgiving. 

It was, indeed, a far cry from “grab your silverware on the way to the table.” It communicated that this was a special time — and worth the effort. The family’s enthusiastic reception solidified the idea that Sunday dinner should be nicer than the norm.

The writer with her family eating outdoors.

2. Plan a meal that everyone will love.

Fact: Kids will be more excited to come to a dinner when the menu features stuff they’re excited about. You know this already. I prep foods we all love or remember from our travels. (The latter was particularly poignant during our long California lockdown when going anywhere seemed a distant memory.) Crowd-pleasers for my family are simple, too: Mashed potato casserole and a slow cooker pot roast are always big hits.

Credit: Patty Catalano

3. Shop wisely.

I’m almost always all about saving. Shopping my kitchen as well as the grocery sales is how I roll. But, at the same time, I don’t want Sunday dinner to have a bargain basement feel. (See above about it being special!) As I’m grocery shopping and looking over sales, I think of foods we’d all enjoy for a special meal, but at prices we can manage. And I always keep these tips in mind.

Read more: 6 Lessons a Mom of 6 Can Teach You About Saving Money on Food and Groceries

4. Plan for conversation.

With kids at home ranging in age from 13 to 20, we have varying interests and levels of understanding. I try to prep a few questions in advance to get us talking on a deeper level — beyond “please pass the salt.” For example, it’s been really fun to reminisce over our European travels, as well as dream about where we’d love to go next!

5. Put it on the schedule.

It’s harder to blow things off if they’re actually on your calendar (either in pen on a paper one or typed into a digital one). If your kids are older and you have a shared Google Calendar, for example, put it on everyone’s schedule. My older kids know to block their schedules out for Sunday dinner. (It helps that they work at Chick-fil-A, which is closed on Sundays, so they never have a work conflict.)

Sundays are the launching pad for the week, so starting it off with a family dinner sets a good tone. It can take some effort, to be sure, especially if your kids aren’t used to it. But it’s well worth it to reserve that time, and make sure the family knows Sundays are spoken for.

What we do now creates ripples into the future. Someday, there just may be grandbabies gathering around that table with plastic plates and sippy cups. And that makes our Sunday family dinners a must-do.

Do you have special weekly family dinners? Or memories of them growing up? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.