The Best, Shortest Recipe for Summer Family Dinners: Eat Outside.

A family dinner allows parents to break their own rules and align themselves more with healthy eating habits for kids.

The other day, a friend’s daughter was visiting our house so we chose to have dinner with her and our two boys on the patio. The children’s plates each held a corndog and a variety of sliced vegetables. The little girl, a six-year-old playmate of our 5 and 7-year-old sons, plucked two cucumbers slices from her plate, leaned back in her Adirondack rocker and placed to cool green slices over her eyes.

“I’m just going to relax for awhile,” she sighed.

My wife and I looked at each other and shrugged. If we’d been at the dinner table we would have likely asked her to stop with voices full of exasperation. In fact, we’d done so in the past in response to her dinner shenanigans. But we weren’t at the dinner table. We were outside. And eating outside is different. So we chuckled and continued chatting with the kids.

Does this laxity represent a double standard? Sure does. After all, the family dinner table was literally feet away behind a sliding glass door. So why are rules different outside? Why does it feel right that they should be despite making little logical sense? I think I know. I have a theory.

Dinner outside is never just dinner. It’s a picnic.

The outdoors is a much more dynamic environment than a dining room. There is far more to watch out for and react to. Outside, a breeze can shift a plate off the table, or a yellow jacket might cause momentary panic. Urges to get up and move around are more easily indulged because there is less to stand in the way. Parents are literally unable to control all of these factors without taking the meal inside. So the best thing to do is relax and roll with it.

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The informality of outdoor dining also allows parents to relax on other fronts. No need for silverware, eat with your fingers. No need to stay put, if you need to run away from the bug, feel free. No need to mind your manners. Not really, the burp sounds less drastic in the open air anyway. Without rules to strictly adhere to, then, the only thing left to do is talk about the day, the climate, the insects and eat, or not.

Interestingly, this is pretty much how child nutritionist believe dinners should be conducted: unstressed, without pushing kids to eat, but full of family conversation and enjoyment. The dinner table and dining room tends to prompt just the opposite. Parents at a table with a child are prone to beg or cajole a kid to eat. Stress runs high on all sides. Dinner becomes an unpleasant experience that isn’t conducive to bonding or good nutritional outcomes.

That unpleasant experience makes kids dread coming to the table. They know it will simply be an hour of poking at their plate while being yelled at for not eating. Eating outside, though, is fun. It turns dinner into an experience. The focus is less on how much and what a kid is eating than it is about the novelty of the shared experience. The parent’s job when eating outside is to provide the food and enjoy the fun. That’s exactly how it should be inside too.

So it may be that eating dinner outside, with all its inherent chaos, is actually a healthier option for many families than eating at the dinner table. The trick then is to bring the ethos of the outdoor dinner back into the dining room.

Eating outdoors reminds us that eating together can be fun. And it should be just as pleasant indoors as well.