As a child, our family dinners were spent focused on two topics – sports and politics. The political discussions were always heated and while the disagreements around sports were just as strong, they were not nearly as charged with emotion. I found this an interesting phenomenon and useful to remember throughout my life. Those dinners around the table were the place where our family lore was made. Taco night was our favorite meal. My brother and I acted out our favorite television scenes, told tales from the playground, and taught our parents how to peel the chocolate crust off of Hostess Ding Dongs.
When my own children were young, my husband did not get home from work before the kids went to bed. We instituted a daily family breakfast ritual and would all sit down to breakfast together. We had many morning discussions about dinosaurs and trains. The best days were birthdays because that meant cake, candles, and presents first thing in the morning.
While continued to have breakfast together most days, it became rushed, and often without conversation. Our family meal shifted to dinner. Dinner is where we learned about our kids and where they learn about us. I loved when they enthusiastically explained a new interest, a history project, or one of them would instigate a debate. With two boys, they learned to share the stage, be supportive of each other, and the art of negotiation over dinner.
When they were in elementary school we played a game every night at the table. We called it “Best and Worst”. Each person described the best and worst parts of their day. This was an important lens into our kids’ perceptions and it helped them share things that were ruminating inside. It also gave us an opportunity to probe deeper if we thought they might need to talk it through. When my kids were teenagers, after-school activities were no longer right after school and family dinner became more tricky again.
Despite this we usually followed a couple of rules; Sunday night dinner was a must; if we don’t all eat together, at least one family member sits with you because no one eats dinner alone; and dinner in front of the TV is for very special events only, like when our team makes the playoffs.
Research shows that kids who eat together with their families eat more fruits and vegetables, have lower rates of obesity as adults, and better emotional wellbeing. The dinner table is the one place where we all take a moment from our busy lives to support each other and enjoy each other’s company.
Despite all of the good things that happen around the table, it can be a monumental effort to make it happen. Here are some tips to make it easier.
Tips for Implementing Regular Family Meals
- If you do not already have regular family meals, start with one meal per week that is easy to organize around family schedules. Breakfast, lunch after church, Sunday night dinner, Saturday brunch, Friday night Shabbat or make at home pizza dinner are just some possibilities. There are no right and wrong ways to do this. A family meal can be as simple as sandwiches or scrambled eggs as long as the family eats together.
- Enlist the help of others in the kitchen. Small children like to help and tearing lettuce or putting napkins on the table is a great activity for them. Older children and spouses can participate in the shopping, chopping and/or cooking. Encourage your kids to try cooking and ask them to encourage you to try new recipes.
- If you don’t have time to cook order a family-style takeout meal (taco platter, roasted chicken, Chinese food) and serve it on platters so that everyone shares.
- Make your family meals non-negotiable.
- Plan ahead. If everyone has a busy week, make a pot of stew or chili on the weekend or throw everything in a crockpot first thing in the morning. There is nothing better than coming home to a dinner that is already made.
- While starting up family meals can seem stressful, the benefits to you and your children are worth the effort.