If the phrase “Family Dinners” conjures up squeaky-clean children and a table laden with linens and fine china, then leave your fears and trepidation at the…table. While you’ve probably heard various reports on the importance of eating together as a family, the wisdom is often pushed aside by worry: “I can’t cook every night of the week! And even if I could, how on earth could I possibly get all of our schedules to line up?!” But family mealtime might be more attainable than you think…
It’s not about the food
"If it were just about food, we would squirt it into their mouths with a tube," says Robin Fox, an anthropologist who teaches at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "A meal is about civilizing children. It's about teaching them to be a member of their culture."
Whether it’s hot dogs and mac n' cheese, prime ribs with mashed potatoes, or Chinese take-out, it’s not about what specific foods you’re eating, but rather, it’s the act of sitting together and enjoying the company that counts. Studies have shown that the more often families eat together, the less likely kids are to smoke, drink, do drugs, and even become depressed or suicidal. And, the more often families share a meal, the more likely kids are to do well in school, delay having sex, eat their vegetables, and learn table manners!
It’s not about which meal
If nights are too chaotic for your family, then consider a different time to “share a meal” together. For instance, my husband’s family had four children of all different ages who were all dedicated to a great number of activities, taking them in and out of their home at all hours of the day. So rather than fighting an impossible battle of coordinating dinner together, they ate breakfast together every morning. This was their time to reconnect, share funny stories, and pray together before heading out the door.
If breakfast won’t work either, then why not create a new mealtime altogether? Sit down together right after school or right before bed, with a plate of sliced fruit and veggies or warm cookies and hot cocoa. I have a friend whose regular family mealtime growing up was a snack before bed, where everyone sat around the table, munched, chatted and laughed together.
It IS about being “un-plugged”
Consider that studies have shown that kids who eat dinner with the TV on are more than twice as likely as those with frequent TV-free family meals to have tension with family members, and are less likely to think that their parents are proud of them. Although it might seem awkward and halting at first, with time, conversation will get easier and you’ll connect on a much deeper level without the television, radio, or iPads, iPods, and iPhones.
If you’re not sure what to talk about, start with everyone just sharing a “high” (good part) and “low” (bad part) of their day. Or purchase a "Would You Rather" book or discussion cards and pick one each night to debate.
It IS about repetition
Remember, it’s not about the type of food or the time of day, but it is about making family mealtime a regular tradition. While holiday traditions can make a big impact — big, glazed turkeys stuffed with cranberries and cornbread — it’s the repetition of the daily family mealtime that takes center stage in the long-run.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University gathered nearly a decade’s worth of data regarding family dinners. Their research shows that family dinners get better with practice; the less often a family eats together, the worse the experience is likely to be, the less healthy the food and the more difficult the conversation.
But on the occasional evenings when family members linger around crumb-lined plates, where someone shares a story and the table shakes with laughter, or where differing opinions are debated in the only place no one is made to feel embarrassed or stupid or unimportant — these are the moments when we get a glimpse of the true meaning of home.