BY ERIN KUH, MBA, RD
Family dinner time. It’s becoming more of a rarity, on the verge of extinction in some households. Yet as it becomes more challenging to carve out 20 minutes to sit together around a table (not in front of the TV or in separate rooms) the more benefits we’re discovering from this once normal everyday occurrence. I can remember typical dinners growing up, often marked with heated debates and conversation once we kids were old enough to become opinionated.
Without realizing it, this was a sacred time to reconnect at some level, even if it meant sitting in silence, arguing with my siblings to keep their elbows on their side of the table, listening to my parents remind us to take smaller bites for the umpteenth time, or trying to hide lima beans in my napkin so I could be excused. We kids were in charge of setting the table and had rotating dish duty. Without realizing it, A LOT was going on by the simple act of eating a meal together and sharing time at the end of the day, after or between, all of our different activities. And the proof is in the research to motivate family dinner time to be made a priority again.
It’s tough though. I get it; between rushing from one activity to the next, coordinating work schedules, and competing with portable technologies that seem to be infiltrating every last crevice of our lives, uninterrupted family dinners are hard. The following scene is typical at my house:
- Walk in the house carrying groceries, my laptop, purse, workout bag, and toddler’s backpack.
- Pull out leftovers and reheat. Instruct 5-year-old to wash hands WITH SOAP and clean off that morning’s art creation from the dinner table.
- Quickly scrub dried peanut butter and jam stuck on the table from God knows what meal or snack.
- Remind the starving toddler to wait for grace before eating.
- Say grace.
- Remind 5-year-old to chew and swallow before talking.
- Husband gets a work call and steps away from the table.
- The starving toddler is no longer hungry and leaves the table to go play.
- I struggle with a toddler which results in a tantrum.
- 5-year-old and I finish dinner together.
- 20 minutes later my husband finishes his dinner.
- Toddler ends up eating a bowl of oatmeal an hour after dinner.
Sometimes it seems like it’s more work than its worth. Could all of the following benefits actually result from the above exhausting chaos? Studies say “yes.”
- Better academic performance
- Higher self-esteem
- A greater sense of resilience
- Lower risk of substance abuse
- Lower risk of teen pregnancy
- Lower risk of depression
- Lower likelihood of developing eating disorders
- Lower rates of obesity
If family dinner time has become non-existent in your house, here are a few tips on how to reclaim this invaluable time:
- Require everyone sits at the table together and turn all technology off.
- Focus on the time together rather than the food. Even if you’re eating cereal or sandwiches, it’s the “being together” that is most important. While we know homemade meals typically are more nutritious and this is where some of the benefits lie, a significant impact is made by family interaction and conversation.
- Have a dinner meal plan posted on the fridge with approximate time dinner will be served. It might change from day to day depending on schedules but having it written down and posted helps the entire family stick with it.
- Get kids involved with age-appropriate tasks early. My 5-year-old helps prep vegetables and set the table while my 3-year-old helps clear the table and both “help” wash dishes. This isn’t so much about them taking the workload off the parents but getting them involved and contributing from a young age. I also get my daughter’s input for meals she wants.
- Make a reasonable goal to work towards. If you currently never eat dinner together, make it a goal to eat together twice next week. Start slow and stay consistent.
- If this seems impossible, re-evaluate schedules and activities. I know I’m currently doing this since I signed my daughter up for soccer AND dance. Although the crazy schedule will only last 7 weeks, it’s not something I’ll do again because a relaxed and normal family dinner time is more important than exposing her to every extra-curricular activity before she reaches her next birthday.
Here’s to bringing back family dinner time! We would love to hear your challenges, successes, and overall experience of your own family dinner time.
Need some recipes to help get this started? Keep an eye out for our Family Dinner: Part II post coming later next week. This post will have some extra tips and ideas on how to help make family dinner a delicious priority.