As a kid, I almost always had to make it home for our family dinner. This time was sacred family time for us.
It was important to be at dinner on time, cleaned up and ready to eat.This was our family dinner, where we all came together, and it was a mostly daily occurrence.
We always said ‘Grace’ together, my dad dished up our dinners, and we waited patiently until everyone was served before we could dig in.
Table manners were important– no elbows on the table, napkin goes on the lap, bread is broken in half before buttering, ask to have things passed to us, ask “please” for seconds (but don’t interrupt), and never leave the table until everyone was finished eating and we were excused.
We all talked, took turns, and had polite, and not-so-polite conversations. Sometimes there were arguments, sometimes lectures, sometimes scoldings, forgiveness, or words of wisdom passed on. There was a lot of love in that circle around our table. Sometimes hilarity ensued and we laughed until we cried. Sometimes there were tears and pouting. Sometimes there was little conversation, but most of all, we were all together, sharing our meal.
All in all, I remember those times well, and I realize now how incredibly important it was to keep the family together and functioning as a unit, instead of isolating ourselves, coming and going in our own little worlds as we pleased.
Today, I have three teens. When they aren’t away at college, they often seem to be working during dinner time, and catching up with them and their busy lives is a tough proposition. A family dinner these days is often a struggle to get everyone to coordinate schedules and social obligations.
I really miss our own family dinners when the kids were younger.
Too often now, it’s sports practices, after school activities, work, homework, friends, and college that take this precious time away.
The family dinner concept still runs very strong and deep within our culture and its importance goes way beyond simply providing a meal.
There is something totally sacred and special about a shared meal—not the big holiday gathering, but the simple, regular meal that anchors families, even on nights when preparation is quick, talk is light, and everyone has someplace else they need to be.
Some evenings, the mood is right and the whole family shows up and you can get a glimpse the power of this communal gathering, and why social scientists say such communion acts as a special barrier for kids, protecting them from some of the more harmful aspects of our society.
It is a healing balm for families and children.
As hard as it is, it is during the teen years that this family time pays off the biggest. The more often families eat together, the less likely the kids are to smoke, drink, do drugs, be depressed, or have eating disorders.
Kids who come from homes where there is a regular family meal get better grades in school, eat a healthier diet, get along with others better and have better social skills and manners.
Researchers from the National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that the family dinner improves with practice. In other words, if a family rarely eats together, the food is less healthy, the talk is meager, and the experience is not so great. Over time, the conversation improves, the food improves and the whole dinner atmosphere gets better.
Kids who eat most often with their parents are 40% more likely to get A’s and B’s in school than kids who have less than two family dinners a week. Foreign-born kids are much more likely to eat with their parents. When researchers looked at ethnic and racial breakdowns, they found that more than half of Hispanic teens ate with a parent at least six times a week, in contrast to 40% of black teens and 39% of whites.
The most noticeable effect was among the kids who rarely ate with their families. Girls, especially, fared poorly. They ate fewer fruits, vegetables, and calcium, and consumed more soft drinks and snack foods. Girls who dined alone were also more likely to have some type of eating disorder. Boys, too ate less healthy foods when not eating with their families.
The statistics are clear: Kids who dine with the family are healthier, happier and better adjusted in life.
Being together for dinner really counts. Whether it’s the social interaction, the good examples it provides, or the fact that family dinners usually consist of better food choices is unclear. Most likely it’s the combination of those things.
Mealtime is often the only chance parents have to actually take a good look at their teens, carry on a conversation, catch up on their lives and assess any physical or emotional issues that may be going on.
This is where a family builds identity, culture and memories.
Wisdom is passed down, family jokes are cultivated, and the rest of the world is looked at through the reinforced family values. The harshness of life seems far away.
If work schedules or extracurricular activities keep your family from eating dinner together, make it another meal.
The key here is togetherness, not just the meal.
Perhaps you can work on a few breakfasts together, or even a lunch or two. One of my friends has a family meal, but if everyone cannot make the mealtime, they get together to play cards or a game after dinner and spend time together that way.
Even if you can’t do it every night, once or twice a week family meals is better than not at all. It doesn’t have to be a fancy meal–it can even be a pizza from the local take-out joint.
Turn off the TV and the put the cell phones away for a while. Pull up some chairs. Invite conversation. Look at each other. Make eye contact. Interact. And please, pass the potatoes.
Till next time, stay healthy, lean and happy!