The importance of the family mealtime
We are a busy family of five that is constantly on the go. My husband and I both work outside of the home and are involved in sporting and community activities. The three children ages six, nine, and 13 are bused to and from school and are busy most evenings of the week with extracurricular activities such as hockey, figure skating, Tae kwon do, art lessons, or tutoring. Sometimes it feels as if we are flying in and out of the house without even a chance to exchange more than a few words, day after day, during the week. Breakfast is rare, lunches are brown-bagged, and dinner is usually on the fly for everyone, except on Sunday when we try to do a family dinner. It seems our lifestyle is fairly common among our friends, and I was just wondering if you have some suggestions to get us off the treadmill and improve our quality of family life?
On the Go
Dear On the Go,
Yes, indeed, you are living the modern middle-class family lifestyle of two careers, several active children, numerous extracurricular activities, and little quality time to spend as a family where talking, listening, and sharing can occur. I am exhausted just thinking about the pace you are keeping up, day in and day out. While there are a few adjustments you could make to your lifestyle, I would like to focus on one—the absence of regular family meals.
I’m choosing this one because a family meal is something that could be introduced into your schedule perhaps four or five times a week and because there are so many proven benefits to it.
You are probably aware that you are not alone in our culture in being short on family meals. Jill Anderson of Harvard Graduate School of Education reports that only 30% of American families manage to eat together regularly. She says that more than 20 years of research proves that family dinners are terrific for “the body, physical health, the brains, and academic performance, and the spirit or the mental health…” 80% of teenagers prefer eating a meal with their family rather than with other teenagers, by themselves or watching a screen.
An article by Dr. Patrick Coleman entitled ‘Six Scientific Reasons Family Dinners Are Important For Your Child’ documents some of the benefits:
- Family meals promote advanced language skills for young children, which encourages early readers and good literacy skills.
- Family meals promote patience and dexterity using utensils.
- Family meals foster good social skills, manners, and etiquette.
- Children who experience regular family meals are less likely to experience depression or drug usage.
- Family meals improve the bond and connection between family members, no matter how busy they may be.
- A Columbus University study found that children who ate as a family 5 to 7 times a week reported mostly A’s and B’s academically.
- A Stanford University study found that children who experienced regular family dinners were less likely to overeat or have eating disorders.
- An American Society for nutrition study found that children who had regular family meals had lower body mass index.
- Home cooked meals are generally less expensive.
Jill Anderson, in her article ‘The Benefit of Family Meal Time,’ added to this list of benefits:
- A lot of family therapy occurs at family dinners.
- Children tend to eat more healthily at family dinners.
- Children who have regular family dinners are less prone to smoking.
- Family dinners are associated with fewer teen pregnancies.
- Children who eat regular family dinners show better resilience and higher self-esteem.
Julie Baumgardner, in an article entitled ‘The Value of Family Meals’ notes further benefits:
- Family meals provide an opportunity for laughter, debates, and shared stories.
- Family meals allow occasions for intergenerational connectedness.
- Family meals let family members catch up on the happenings of the day and keep people connected no matter how busy they are.
- Family meals provide a chance to transmit values.
- Family meals create bonds and memories between the participants and unity.
An article entitled ‘Why the Family Meal is Important’ from Stanford Children’s Health describes the kind of family lifestyle you are engaged in and understands that it is easier to skip a family dinner. However, family mealtime may be the only time of day when everyone is together. The authors add to the many benefits listed previously:
- Family meals help manage daily stress.
- Family meals foster good eating habits and support weight control.
- Family meals support family relationships where children learn to talk, listen, and respect each other.
- Family meals provide an opportunity to plan the next day together and review the current day.
- Family meals are an opportunity to share the workload in the home, including the cooking, the serving, and the cleanup.
- Family meals let the parents model social skills of conversation in which children’s ideas and feelings can be validated.
- Family mealtimes support good family dynamics where everyone can be involved. The entire family is enhanced.
Jodi Schultz of Michigan State University Extension says that the average American parent spends 38.5 minutes a week in meaningful communication with their children. She concurs with the findings of the previous authors and suggests, in addition, that family meals allow children to learn healthy lifestyle options, how to work as a team, share and solve problems and communicate.
So, On the Go, I suggest you try to step off the treadmill, do a few less extracurricular activities and work towards having a regular family dinner time at least five times a week. It does not always have to be the evening meal, as a breakfast, brunch, or lunch will do, too. A family meal does not have to involve everyone in the family, all of the time; as long as one parent and one child are involved, it can count as a family meal to begin. May I also suggest you not try to change everything at once, but start slowly with one or two regular family meals, as your schedule is changed to accommodate this very important part of family life.
The family meal should be a time to have fun and enjoy each other. Try to keep the conversation positive, nonjudgmental, and devoid of criticisms. It is not the time to bring up a bad grade, a broken curfew, or messy rooms. The family meal is a good time to decide that devices will be put aside, that everyone will be involved and that the interaction between the family members will be more important than the food.
An excellent book of easy recipes, conversation starters, and fun games for families to play at dinner time from The Family Dinner Project is entitled ‘Eat, Laugh, Talk: The Family Dinner Playbook.’
‘Dinner Questions For Your Family’ from the dad dude.com provides some excellent conversation starters for families who find their children have little to say at the dinner table.
I hope you will be able to get off the treadmill soon On the Go. I will conclude with some inspiring quotations about family dinners:
“Togetherness is the only perfection needed when it comes to dinner time.”— Carla Hall
“A single conversation across the table with a wise man is better than ten years more study of books.” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“The shared meal is no small thing. It is the foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending.” — Michael Pollan
I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.