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  • "parents who eat dinner before 6:15 p.m. read with children 27% longer, play with children 18% longer, spend 11% more quality time with children, and spend 14% more overall time with children” in the evening than those who eat later. Tweet This
  • Moving dinner time a little earlier is a strategy that seems to help parents carve out more quality time with their children, and more time together is good for kids.  Tweet This
Category: Family Life

The start of a new school year is upon us. After going through the uncertainty of the past year and a half, I feel an urgency about having a well-functioning family schedule this fall. I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to have a routine in motion that can provide some level of predictability to carry my family through the coming weeks with a sense of normalcy. It can be hard to know where to start when shaping afternoon and evening routines. My advice is to start with being intentional about family dinner time and to move it earlier when possible. 

Having dinner as a family is an important part of a family routine. Shared meals are a time to bond, talk together, and give children a chance to process the day. Research suggests family dinner is connected to a host of positive child outcomes, such as better physical and mental health, stronger parent-child relationships, more developed language skills, and even better grades and fewer risky and harmful choices for teenagers. Past research has focused on the frequency of family dinner, with three times per week or more seen as a beneficial level. 

Beyond the frequency of family meals, new research by Joe Price, Luke Rogers, and me shows that the timing of family dinner is related to how parents and children interact throughout the rest of the evening. Dinner often creates a demarcation in the types of activities families engage in. Before dinner, children often play and do homework, while parents transition home from work and into preparing food. After dinner, parent attention on children is generally high as parents engage in more family-oriented activities. Because dinner initiates family time, parents who start dinner earlier often have more time available in the evening to spend with children before it is time for bed.

Our study leveraged detailed time diary data from the American Time Use Survey on roughly 41,000 families in the United States. We evaluated whether dinner time predicts how much total time, quality time, reading time, and play time parents spend with children during the evenings. We found that: "parents who eat dinner before 6:15 p.m. read during the evening with children 27% longer, play with children during the evening 18% longer, spend 11% more quality time with children during the evening, and spend 14% more overall time with children” than those who eat later than this.

Some readers may wonder if this is more about a correlation and not necessarily that early dinner affects evening time with children. Maybe the families we studied have other things going for them that make it possible to spend more time together. However, our sample was large, random, and representative of the United States, which means the parents we studied were not a select group. Second, we took socio-demographic factors, family background, family characteristics, and family constraints into account in our study, and our estimates adjusted for these factors as much as possible. The pattern of more parent-child time when dinner is earlier was consistently observed across family types and family situations. From this, we learn that families in a variety of circumstances have a similar connection between the timing of dinner and the amount of quality time parents spend with their children. Whether you are a father or a mother, married or single, working or not, the parent of a toddler or teen, or scheduling for a weekend or weekday, having earlier dinner will likely help increase the amount of time you spend with your children. 

The value of moving dinner a little earlier becomes clear when viewed through the broader lens of parenting and parental investments in children. Parenting practices have real implications for family life. A parent is a child’s best teacher. Research presents strong evidence that reading with childrenplaying with children, and providing attention to children positively shapes their development in the short-term and long-term. Parent time with children is good for parent-child relationships as it typically fosters healthy emotional development in children and parent-child closeness. Spending time as a family is beneficial for parents, too, as it often boosts parents’ well-being and feelings of bonding with children. Moving dinner time a little earlier is a strategy that seems to help parents carve out more quality time with their children, and more time together is good for kids. 

Making adjustments to mealtimes, family schedules, and the time we spend with our families is a continual process. It is up to us as parents to decide what is feasible for our families as we evaluate what time the family should eat the evening meal, how often the family eats together, or other ways to spend time with our children. Changes do not have to be dramatic to make a difference; small improvements that are consistent provide benefit to children. As we make a genuine effort, we can support our families one meal and one moment at a time.

Jocelyn Wikle, PhD is an assistant Professor of Family Studies in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Her research focuses on the causes and consequence of resource investments in children. This research explores family, contextual, and policy factors related to parental time investments in children and family processes. Thanks to Marissa McRae for her research assistance.