'We cancelled family dinners and something magic happened.'

Parenting experts have long promoted the importance of sitting down for a shared family meal. Research shows family meal time comes with benefits; improved communication, healthy eating habits and self-esteem in kids. But what if this 'gold standard' of mealtime parenting doesn't suit you? Worse, what if family mealtimes are simply not enjoyable or cause you stress?

On an episode of Mamamia Outloud last week, Mia Freedman talked about how she has never done family dinners. Her kids have always enjoyed 'picnic plates', a relation to the latest viral TikTok trend, 'Girl dinner', with a mix of fruit, toast, cheese or whatever they fancy. 

Now Mia's kids are older, they also use Uber Eats or can help themselves to whatever is in the fully stocked fridge. 

Listen to Mia discuss her family dinner style in this episode of Mamamia Outloud. Post continues below. 

Mia is far from the only parent to reject the notion of nightly family mealtimes. 

Full-time mechanical engineer Hanna Smith is a mum to four-year-old Megan, and she says that while she enjoys occasional restaurant meals out with Megan and her fiancé Josh, the three of them rarely sit down for dinner together at home.

"Both Josh and I have busy work schedules and complex dietary requirements that make family dinner time quite challenging," Hanna tells Mamamia.

"I am a vegetarian and I am allergic to nuts, gluten and apples. Josh is allergic to nuts and gluten but he can't eat dairy. He will bulk cook meat-based meals like spaghetti bolognese or shepherd's pie and I do the same with vegetarian pasta or rice-based dishes. 

"Lucky for us, Megan eats pretty much anything so she will have a bit of my food and Josh's and some days a simple snack plate of cheese, crackers and fruit."


With complex diets and long workdays, Hanna says the family all prefer to eat at different times.

"Megan loves her days at kindy and we rarely get home until 6pm. By then she is hungry and so will sit at the breakfast bar in the kitchen having some leftovers or a snack plate while I unload the dishwasher and do some chores. I might sit and eat with her around 6pm or wait until I feel hungry later. Josh is more likely to eat his meal alone after 8pm.

"I used to feel like a family dinner was something we were supposed to do and we tried, but it just didn't work in our household  – it is not a priority for us,"

Hanna says that just because she doesn't do nightly meals at the dinner table, doesn't mean she misses out on connecting with her family.

"Bedtime is an important time of the day for us to connect with Megan. After she is in her pyjamas, we sit and read together in her bedroom. Then we take turns getting into bed with her for a cuddle and a chat about her day before she goes to sleep after 7pm. 

"For Josh and I, we might eat our different meals separately but we have time to wind down and chat once Megan is asleep as we rarely go to bed until 11 pm." 

Mum-of -two Rebecca Willis tells Mamamia, that like Hanna, she rarely eats dinner with her family but that doesn't mean they don't have quality time to connect.

"I don’t like the idea of not paying attention to what I eat as I find it hard to supervise the kids and eat at the same time. I use their early dinner time as the time to clean up and prepare for the following day. They’re occupied, so it’s faster, and I don’t have to waste my downtime doing it once they are in bed.


"We all eat similar meals, I just serve it to my children the following day so whatever my husband and I eat for dinner on Monday is usually served to the kids in a simplified version on Tuesday night!

"We also have quality playtime after the kids have eaten and before bath time – as I’ve already sorted my nightly chores while they were eating. This works for us."

Watch: Laura Byrne shares how to be 'a good mum'. Post continues below.

Video via Mamamia

Advice columnist and educational psychologist Sarah Wheeler, otherwise known as 'The Good Enough Parent', says that while meal times work for some families, it doesn't mean it has to work for yours.

"It makes sense to me that, for some families in some situations, eating together supports a positive relationship to food, and is, well, nice," Wheeler writes in Romper.

"But don’t kill yourself to check a parenting box that isn’t as essential as the culture wants you to think it is. This kind of outsized weighting of shoddy research can cause real harm when we lose ourselves in some narrow parenting prescription and mistrust our own instincts and idiosyncratic ways of responding to the actual needs of ourselves and our children."

Thinking about your own needs rather than just ticking that box is sound advice. Many parents reached out to Mamamia to share how unenjoyable they found family dinner times and how "exhausted" they were with the nightly meal cooking that often went unappreciated.


Single mum Trish Craft tells Mamamia that she has given up stressing about mealtimes with her teenage kids.

"I work most nights until 8pm-ish, and my kids are active with footy training, dance and acro classes. I also have a teenager who goes to the gym most nights, so none of us are even home at what would be a ‘normal’ dinner time.

"There is always a slow cooker going or a pre-cooked lasagne, chicken pie, or spaghetti bolognese in the fridge so we all reheat and eat at different times. I do all the meal planning, grocery shopping, meal prep, cleaning up and it’s exhausting!"

Instead of worrying about labour-intensive family dinners being the only way to connect, Wheeler suggests looking for other avenues.

"With older kids especially, making time for connection, in any weird way you can get it, is probably something good to aspire to. 

"Maybe it’s dinner. Or breakfast, or a weekend lunch, or late-night tea and cake. Could be a chitty-chat in the drive-thru Starbucks line. Maybe it’s pretending to not understand their shows while you do paperwork. It worked for my family, but the only thing that really matters is what works for yours."

Snack picnic dinners, here we come.

Laura Jackel is Mamamia's Family Writer. For links to her articles and to see photos of her outfits and kids, follow her on Instagram and TikTok.

Feature Image: Supplied.