The Family Dinner Project Is Trying to Spread the Benefits of Family Meals

The Cambridge group provides online resources and hosts community dinners for families.

A community dinner. Photo provided by the Family Dinner Project

A community dinner. Photo provided by the Family Dinner Project

What if there were a way to help ease conditions ranging from obesity to substance abuse, from eating disorders to depression? What if it could also improve kids’ vocabularies and school performances?

There is—and it’s as simple as sitting down for a meal.

That’s the idea behind The Family Dinner Project (FDP), a Cambridge group that espouses the research-backed benefits of family meals, while making it easier for families to sit down together. “The Family Dinner Project is a growing movement that champions family dinner as an opportunity for families to connect through fun, healthy food and conversation about things that matter,” says Anne Fishel, a family psychologist and one of the group’s cofounders.

To achieve its goal, FDP provides online resources—like its Dinner Tonight series, which offers free, easy recipes as well as games and conversation starters to use at the table—and hosts community dinners where families can gather to troubleshoot issues like busy schedules and picky eaters. Fishel says these group brainstorm sessions focus more on practical advice, like how to save time and cater to different palates, than on haute cuisine cooking.

“The benefits don’t come from a three-course meal or eating heirloom parsnips,” she says. “The benefits really come from the atmosphere at the table.”

Around this time of year, FDP offers even more resources than usual. For one, the group just launched a partnership with Giving Tuesday and Blue Star Families called #FamilyDinnerForward. From November 25 to December 15, each time a user downloads a special Dinner Tonight plan made for the initiative, Boston Market will make a donation to a military family through Blue Star. “The idea is to amplify the power of a single family dinner,” Fishel says.

FDP is also working with CARE, a group fighting global poverty, to raise awareness about world hunger.

And while some of FDP’s programming aims for macro-level change, Fishel says the immediate benefits of family dinners are immense. For starters, she says, home-cooked meals are just plain healthier than restaurant food, and eating and talking as a group prevents treating meals like a “feeding station.” But it’s not just nutrition—Fishel says consistent meal times have real emotional and mental benefits.

“It’s a predictable time of day for parents to check in about how school is going and troubleshoot if a child seems to be getting sick or seems very upset,” she says. “In 21st century America, dinner is the most reliable time of the day parents and kids have to connect.”

Beyond that, Fishel says dinner is a crucial time to unplug and decompress, for parents and children alike.

“Dinner is a ritual that sort of carves out a particular time and space, and gives the family a break from the hubbub and the frenzy of everyday life,” Fishel says. “It gives a chance to recharge and reconnect and laugh and relax. We all need that.”