The Lonely Kitchen Island: Physical Obstacles to Family Meals


This post isn’t specifically about the spectrum of picky eating… but it is. One of the major goals of our STEPS+ approach is for families to enjoy eating together again— or perhaps for the first time. We wrote a whole chapter on rehabbing family mealtimes, and one often overlooked piece of the puzzle is the physical space where meals happen.

Consider the kitchen island. Other than just being a place to throw keys and homework, the kitchen island in many houses and apartments has replaced the kitchen table. Granite countertops sell homes— humble tables don’t.

Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, most Midwestern middle class kitchens I dined in did not have elaborate islands or counters with stools. I remember sitting around tables. As homes generally got bigger over the last 30 years, it seems the kitchen island became standard and the eat-in kitchen disappeared.

On house-calls and play-dates over the years as a childhood feeding specialist and mom, I’ve watched the parent or childcare provider standing behind the island counter preparing food and serving children. By design, the island makes line-cook/wait-staff the easiest option— and there’s nothing wrong with this on occasion. But if it mostly or always happens, it robs children of the most important mealtime ingredient—a loving adult providing company and eating from the same foods (including at least one item the child generally enjoys).

So, did form follow, or dictate function? Were parents already standing and serving meals and needed a more efficient way to do so, or did the changing design of modern homes assist the slide of communal family meals?  Moms  (both working and stay-at-home) are usually blamed for everything, including obesity and the decreasing frequency of family meals, so I thought I’d implicate home designers too. It’s only fair.



Let’s throw in furniture designers while we’re at it, with the trend of tall dining tables with bar-stool height chairs where even the adults’ feet don’t reach the floor. What I’ve observed with these tables is children eating nearby at the island or at a child-sized picnic table separate from parents. Once parents and children are eating at different spaces it becomes easier (even automatic) to serve ‘kid’ and ‘grown up’ foods, with children missing out on the critical (no pressure) exposures to the very foods parents want them  to eat.

Islands are fine. In fact I wish I had one. A friend of mine had me over to learn how to cook some Indian dishes while her kids sat at the island doing homework, chatting, and enjoying their after-school snack. I also think if I had an island I wouldn’t misplace my keys as much, but I digress.


Making Family Meals the Easier Option

I’m no sociologist nor is this an academic post, but I think it’s worth reflecting on how our surroundings make it easier or harder for families to eat together. A popular phrase in public health is, “Make the healthy option the easy option.”  Making family meals the easier option (it’s not really just easy) by addressing your surroundings may help.

  • Can you trade in that tall dining table or saw off the legs?
  • Can you invest in a chair that will grow with your child and provide stability and a foot rest (helps with those fidgety legs)?
  • Can you plan a table nook for your kitchen remodel?
  • Can you reserve the kitchen island for snacks and homework and use the dining table for dinner and weekend meals?
  • Maybe buy a desk or redo a closet for an office space to free up the dining room table?
  • Can your next apartment have a dining area off the kitchen?
  • Can you plan an island big enough that everyone can eat together?
  • Can you sit around a coffee table on cushions if you don’t have a table?
  • Can you swing by an Ikea and get ideas for or find an affordable and compact kitchen table?

If you have a kitchen island, how is it used? What are other obstacles you face to making family meals happen?



This post is adapted from an original post at

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