We all know the scenario too well…it’s a busy day, your kids have sports right over the dinner hour and in different places, you’re feeling too tired to cook, your spouse running late, you work hard to cook a good meal only to have your family sit down for a total of five minutes before they all rush off to their next activity, etc.
Most of us have been there. Most of us have also felt like giving up and throwing in the towel on family dinners. We question the amount of work, feel unappreciated, overwhelmed and wonder if a family dinner is even worth it. However, I am a strong believer that there are so many benefits to this tradition and that the practice of eating together is an essential component to strong families and the pursuit of happiness. Family dinners are good and they are worth the effort.
This summer has been a different summer for our family dynamics. My two teenagers are spending more time with friends than ever before and this often means that they are gone over the dinner hour. When I do have them home and the whole family is together for a meal, I remember why planning and making meals is all worthwhile. In this stage of life, maybe more than others, I am seeing the good in our meals together.
Family Dinners are Important
Family dinners are good in so many ways. Having a master’s degree in nutrition, I know the importance of good, healthy and balanced food choices. But I also know the importance of taking time to share a meal together and the benefits that come from sitting down as a family. The mealtime is about so much more than the food being served. It is about providing an atmosphere of connection, love, tradition, and conversation. I believe that dinner together as a family has a profound impact on the development of children and close family ties.
Here are the five ways I see the good in family dinners and the important role they play in a healthy family life:
1. Family Dinners are Good for Connecting
Family life today is busy. Most families have work, school and activity schedules that compete for their time. Time doesn’t stop at 5:00 p.m. for families to prepare and sit down for long meals together. Many people say they don’t have two hours to prepare and eat dinner, but then somehow seem to find two hours a day to spend on phones. With all the business, family dinners allow for a time to stop other activities and obligations and just connect.
“One of the simplest and most effective ways for parents to be engaged in their teen’s lives is by having frequent family dinners.”—Joseph Califand, Columbia University
As a mother of two teenagers, I treasure the time we spend connecting at the dinner table. Some days it is the only time all of us have together face to face. Studies show that only half of families eat together more than three times per week. They also show that most meals last twenty minutes or less and are in front of the TV. Use the opportunity for family mealtime to connect face to face with your children. Turn off the distractions, put down the phones and focus on each other.
2. Family Dinners Lead to Healthier Eating
The family dinner is a great step toward healthy living. As a parent, you have control over what is being served. Taking time to plan and cook balanced meals is a great service to your family. Studies show that one of the factors that lower the risk of obesity in children is family dinners. Teenagers who eat regular family dinners are also less likely to smoke tobacco and try drugs. In addition, family dinners are a great way to introduce new foods, experiment with healthy foods, and view eating as something to be enjoyed rather than rushed through. Statistics show that 1 in 5 meals are now eaten in the car. Eating quickly and on the go is often mindless eating instead of the mindfulness of savoring and enjoying food.
3. Family Dinners Teach the Art of Conversation
Have you ever been around children (or adults for that matter) who don’t know how to make conversation? Meaningful conversation is a skill and family dinners are a great place to teach and learn that skill. Time together around the table (with no distractions) allows opportunities to ask about each other’s day, to talk about current events, get opinions on important topics and to share feelings. At our house, family dinners are our gateway to hearing about our kids’ day at school, what is going on in their lives, and what they have planned.
If the conversation doesn’t come easy at the table, try a few tactics. At our house, we love to share “highs and lows.” We each go around the table and share one high (a positive thing) about our day and one low (negative thing). This practice helps us share the details of our day and often leads to deeper conversation. Some other families use conversation cards topic lists, family questions, conversation starters or games. The point is to make the dinner table an enjoyable place and a positive experience. Use that time of sharing a meal together to have conversations that teach, encourage and foster stronger relationships.
4. Family Dinners are a Good Tradition
Traditions are important. For children and adults alike, traditions help ground us and provide a sense of belonging. When family dinners are a regular habit, everyone in the family knows that there will be time to connect. Each family has its own unique rituals that make their mealtimes special. For us, dinner time is a chance to pray together as a family when we say grace before the meal. There is something very powerful in praying and giving thanks together. Some families have traditions of what food is served on certain nights….taco Tuesday, pizza on Friday, etc. The family meal becomes a habit that binds the family together by demonstrating that family matters and the ritual of sharing a meal together is something to be counted on.
5. It’s the Company, Not the Food
You don’t have to be an expert cook or fancy meal planner to have family dinners. So much of the good that comes from the meals comes from the company, not the food. There are endless resources for easy family dinner ideas and recipes. As long as you serve something to eat and sit down together, you have provided a family dinner. Some nights this may be a favorite recipe or something new that you try to make and other times it might be takeout on your way home. In our home, family dinners are a priority but that also means being flexible. During busy times in our schedule, we might eat very early or very late to accommodate a practice, game or work schedule. The goal is to eat together, no matter where, what time, or what you are serving.
I love our dinners together when they happen. I see the connection they provide and I’m thankful each time we sit down that we are blessed with food, health and togetherness. Try to see the good in dinners with your family and experience the happiness that these mealtimes can bring to your life.
Challenge for the Week:
- If you regularly allow phones at the table, try putting them away for a few meals and see what happens.
- Try some conversation starters (high/low, topic questions, etc…) to see if you can extend the time at the table and make it as much about the discussion as the food.
- Make it a goal to eat four meals together as a family, even if that means changing your dinner schedule or meal plan.
- Try to make dinner more fun by making a themed dinner, having your kids help you cook, or simply adding flowers to your table.