Trend Watch: The importance and re-imagining of the family dinner

By Jo-Ann McArthur

Last month I talked about the casting off of traditional mealtimes. Consumers are increasingly in favour of all-day snacking, with breakfast and lunch the meals most at risk. Dinner, the meal skipped least often, is still seen as a traditional time for a family to gather together, and hence carries more social and emotional significance. James Beard award-winning author Michael Pollan even claims that the family dinner ritual is crucial to civilization.

Dinner holds a nostalgic longing for that ideal family occasion, even if we never actually experienced it that way ourselves. This emotional pull continues for Millennials who are now starting their own families. We know that eating together at the end of the day builds relationships and helps kids do better in school. Interestingly, studies suggest that when families dine out, they behave much like they do at home, including discussing the day’s events.

Meal Prep

Of the three traditional meals, dinner takes the most planning and preparation. Behavioural science shows that we only have so many decisions in us in a day. Questions like, “What should I wear?” or, “What new product am I going to launch?” add to our cognitive load, and by day’s end consumers may be suffering from decision fatigue. By the time the, “What’s for dinner?” question arises, most primary meal preparers are mentally and physically tapped out.

And remember, most dinners are decided within an hour of eating. It’s far more spontaneous than many marketers and restaurateurs realize. Yet it includes the most inputs of any meal of the day. How can you insert yourself into that meal preparer/decider’s life? Can you make it better by offering an easy and guilt-free solution?

Replicating the Real

Restaurants can assist by offering more “family-style” meals where dishes are communal, rather than plated, and portions are served at the table by the parent. These kinds of meals create a shared experience, allowing families to feel like they have more truly broken bread together, as opposed to the individual experience of ordering separate items.

How else can you add to the dinner ritual? Whether eating in the restaurant or bringing the meal home, weekday dinners may demand heightened levels of service and timing compared to weekend dinners. Can you add convenience and speed to the dinner occasion?

Most restaurants have extra capacity before 6 p.m. Young families may appreciate an earlier dining time and a less crowded, or even separate area for dinner so they feel more welcome (and get fewer stink-eyes from other diners) with vocal children. Do you have a stroller check-in to free up space and encourage new families to dine with you? As the restaurant-goers of tomorrow, it’s in your best interest to train those youngsters! Can you offer mobile ordering ahead, to condense the time between when a family arrives and when they get their food? Kids that are eating are kids that aren’t misbehaving!

The Right Environment

A family dinner should be more than just eating in proximity; it’s about making connections and strengthening familial bonds. Can you help families create new dinner rituals with prompts?

How about napkins that ask questions about their day to be answered as they place them in their laps? An engaged server can play a role in helping teach good dining etiquette with fun, over-the-top “pleases” and “thank yous” and “mesdames and messieurs.” That gets the electronic screens down and the conversation up! It also provides an opportunity for families to talk more without arguing about the post-dinner cleanup.

Modern Family, Modern Dinner

We look for connection at dinnertime, perhaps more than any other time of the day. Sharing an evening meal is the most human of experiences, but not everyone is part of a traditional family. Can you encourage a sense of community in your establishment with communal tables so everyone who wants to can share the experience?

For the family who wants to eat at home, can you have that dinner solution ready for pick-up at the end of a workday? Can that working mom or dad grab a family meal deal from your establishment as they’re walking to their car, or can you deliver it to their office before the end of the workday, so they don’t have to stop on the commute home?

It seems there are more distractions and demands on our time than ever, and this impacts the traditional family dynamic. But there’s still a desire to preserve the family dinner in some form. If restaurants can adapt to meet the needs of the modern family, they can play an important role in keeping them connected. Let’s celebrate dinner!


About the author

Jo-Ann McArthur is the President and Founding Partner of Nourish, a marketing agency that specializes in Food & Beverage, working across all aspects of the food ecosystem. Clients include producers, processors, retailers, manufacturers, food service, and restaurants. Nourish has offices in Toronto, Guelph, and Montreal. Want to know more? Jo-Ann can be contacted at, or sign-up for the agency’s monthly newsletter at:

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