How to Get Teens to Eat Family Dinner


Family meals have always been a goal at my house. Why? Well, there’s plenty of research showing that eating together is important and eating at home is by far the healthiest choice. And personal experience also tells me that family meals help bind us together.

I’ve made it a point to cook as often as I could. That said, meal time with kids has never been idyllic — when they were younger they often argued and horsed around, and now as teens they try to bring phones to the table. But coming together for shared meals is important to me, so I attempt to make it happen.

When my kids were little, we cooked and ate at home for most meals — family dinner was an unquestioned expectation.

Teens & Family Dinner

Then as if it happened overnight, I had teenagers. And the oldest got a car. What I did not foresee was that in addition to hanging out with friends, teens also like to eat out … a lot. In addition to their newfound freedom, they had sports, jobs, and study groups, meaning they often did not come home for dinner.

Initially, the reprieve from dinner duty was nice — the kids were out having fun with friends and I got to relax at the end of a long day. But before long, I realized that frequent eating out was stealing time from the one little window of togetherness that I could eek out of my teenagers.

Teen schedules are busy and it is hard to find a time when all of us can get together. And now, during that rare moment when all of our schedules aligned, they were at the local pizza joint.

Something had to change. But everything I tried failed. “Let’s grill!” “I’m busy.” “How about tacos?” “I’ll be at study group.”

Of course, I could have just put my foot down and insisted that we eat together. And it almost came to that. But before I had to cajole or argue, a miracle happened.

Slow Cooker Magic

One day — not knowing who to expect home for dinner — I dusted off the slow cooker and started dinner early in the afternoon. After cleaning the kitchen, I sent an impromptu text to the kids letting them know that dinner was simmering away. No replies.

But then that evening, without being asked, without comment, and without argument, the teens congregated in the kitchen at dinner time. I acted super casual as I asked someone to set the table.

The next week, I successfully used the newly discovered texting strategy again. Why does it work? Perhaps just knowing that dinner has been cooking for hours induces a bit of teenage guilt. Or perhaps my hungry teens know that slow cookers turn out hearty meals and they don’t want to miss out. Either is fine by me.


How to get teens to eat family dinner

Parent-to-parent, I also feel compelled to mention that hamburgers have the same effect on my teens. If I say “pasta”, they might say “we’ll eat it tomorrow for lunch”. If I say “grilled salmon”, they say “we already have plans”.

But when I say “hamburgers”, the teens show up.

My oldest is so motivated by burgers that years ago he begged for a new Weber grill because our old one was falling apart. Then he happily spent an entire afternoon assembling it and insisted we christen it with burgers. Maybe I just have extreme burger-loving kids, but there is a food that your teens feel the same way about. You just have to discover it, then use it!

The Strategy: Make a Preemptive Strike

So, the next time you are wanting to avoid teenage dinner defections, try pulling out the crock pot and sending a quick preemptive text to let them know dinner is already cooking. Chances are your teens will happily show up and gather around the family table.

Remember, dinner doesn’t have to be fancy — Sloppy Joes will probably do the trick.

Or tempt them with their favorite meal — when in doubt, try hamburgers! But whatever you do, don’t let the kids in on your secret ways — just enjoy the togetherness while it lasts.

Family dinner with teens

Remember, asking about homework or tomorrow’s math quiz, or bringing up the SATs, or reminders to take out the trash, all have the potential to be hot button issues depending on a teen’s mood — so do your part to make family dinner conversation as easy and agreeable as possible.

The good news about teens being so busy? You probably only have to generate a few dinner ideas each week.

And what if you still can’t manage to gather everyone for family dinner as often as you would like? Well you can always shoot for a late night snack when they get home from sports or study group. And take solace in the fact that some research shows it is actually just the time together that is important, not the dinner.

Need slow cooker inspiration? See the collection of 6-8+ hour longer-cooking slow cooker dinner recipes.