How many times a week do you sit down for a family meal? If you have to think about it, that’s a problem.
Busy schedules have cut into family dinners so much so that, in the past 20 years, the frequency of gathering at the table has declined by a dismal 33 percent. And yet, there are numerous benefits to eating together.
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The menu doesn’t have to be anything fancy — pizza or microwave mac & cheese work just as well as more formal repasts — it’s the sheer act of sitting down and spending time as a cohesive group that’s crucial. It also doesn’t have to be dinner; maybe breakfast works better for your family. Either way, making time for shared meals is important for a variety of reasons, including:
▪ You’ll bond more. You can learn a lot from your kids when you spend time together while eating. (Just remember to declare the table a no-device zone.) Having this block of time set aside to communicate allows parents to stay updated on their children’s school and social lives. To spark conversation, create a “talk about it” bowl into which each family member places a question or topic so everyone can take turns fishing one out to get the discussion started. And check out The Family Dinner Project at thefamilydinnerproject.org for more ideas.
▪ Your kids will boost their social skills. Being together and mingling over meals teaches children important skills such as sharing (“Please pass the bread”), compromise (“Isabel is taking the bread now, so you’ll have to wait) and negotiation (“If I pass you the peas, will you please pass me the potatoes?”). It also helps with learning manners (“May I please be excused?”), teamwork (“Please help me bring the plates to the kitchen”) and problem-solving (“I thought I put four forks on the table”). It’s also an opportunity to bring out the pots and pans and get your kids involved in the cooking process. All translate to lifelong interpersonal and communication skills.
▪ You’ll eat more healthfully. Meals eaten with family have about 50 percent more fruits and vegetables than meals consumed alone. Family meals are also three times more likely to include low-fat choices (and no soda). This means your children will be less likely to become overweight or obese. Added bonus: You’ll become more conscious of what you’re eating yourself, and of what you’re serving your family.
▪ Your children will do better in school. Mealtime conversations have been shown to improve children’s vocabulary. Chatting with them about your local green policies or the latest blockbuster movie carries the hidden benefit of improving their conversational and thinking skills. Plus, it’s been proven that teens are less likely to engage in risky behaviors (like drugs, alcohol and sexual activity) when family meals are a part of their lives. Similarly, kids who regularly sit down with their families to dine have better body image and fewer eating disorders than those who don’t.
▪ You’ll emphasize tradition. Children need structure and repetition as this gives them security and stability. Rituals (e.g., dinner at 6 p.m. sharp) also help increase their sense of belonging and reinforce family identity.
▪ You’ll be able to monitor their mood. Families can be complicated, and the dining table can be a place where occasional tension arises. But you can turn that “bad” into “good” by teaching the art of respectful disagreement when it happens. It doesn’t mean you never fight; that wouldn’t be normal. Instead, use the opportunity to model how you work things out. One word of advice: Keep controversial topics like grades, curfews and behavior problems off the table. Putting on music before, during and after dinner is another way to keep everyone relaxed.
▪ Your family will be happier. Mealtimes create memories and bring families closer. What you’re truly serving your kids is a hefty dose of comfort: a time out from everyone’s overscheduled life to wind down, turn off the electronics and tune into each other.