When I was growing up, kids played outside until it got dark or were called in by their parents yelling at the top of their lungs, “DINNER!!!!!!!” This last meal of the day was a sacred ritual that occurred between 5:30– 7:30 each night in each of our homes. We all acknowledged the call, stopped what we were doing, and came in to eat.
Today, things are more complicated. Kids are scheduled with homework, music lessons, sports, and more. And parents have to chauffeur them to all these activities in addition to meeting their own work and social commitments. No one seems to even be home for the evening meal anymore. Sharing a family dinner has become a real challenge.
At 6:30 this morning, my husband asked me about tonight’s dinner plans. He’ll be home by 5:00 pm. My son has religious school from 7 :00 – 9:15pm. I have a meeting from 5:30 – 6:30pm. This doesn’t leave us much time to see each other, let alone eat together. Plus my kid just got bottom braces and can’t eat solid foods. All of this means leftovers for my husband, soup for my son, and eating on the run for me. And when baseball season starts, we’ll just have dinner in shifts at the snack shack.
“Dinner” doesn’t have to be dinner
In Secrets of a Happy Family, Bruce Feiler suggests that family meals do not have to occur every day to be influential. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be dinner that is shared. It could be lunch or breakfast or even dessert.
Time just needs to be carved out to come together one to three times a week for a meal around a table. It can even take place at a restaurant, as long as distractions are limited. You can be creative. My sister-in-law serves dinner at 9:00 pm, after her son is done with sports and her husband comes home from work. That is what works best for her and her family.
The good news about family meals
Feiler maintains that the benefits of sharing a family meal together are enormous:
… children who eat dinner with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide and develop eating disorders. Additional research found that children who enjoy family meals have larger vocabularies, better manners, healthier diets, and higher self-esteem. Mealtime was more influential than time spent in school, studying, attending religious services or playing sports.
Feiler goes on to state that what you talk about matters more than what you eat. He feels that during this meal-sharing, telling family narratives is critical. People pass on stories about relatives and their experiences so kids feel like they belong to something larger than themselves and realize they have a rich heritage. These family stories that get told don’t even have to be 100% truthful!
According to Dolores Curran in her book Traits of a Healthy Family, written in the 80’s, “the healthy family values table time and conversation.” The TV is turned off. She stresses using mealtime to discuss what our days were like and what’ s coming up. But these days, there are more electronic devices to contend with. Cell phones, with instant messaging, Facebook, and ability to check e-mails instantaneously, compete for our attention. There is hardly any time to eat, let alone make meaningful conversation.
I tried to implement “best, worst, and silliest” into our family meal: each person would state the best, worst, and silliest thing that happened to him that day. Then we faltered. My husband resisted and then flat-out refused to do it anymore. He doesn’t like to talk when he eats. Dinners became rushed. Conversation was limited to sports talk and “Pass the ketchup.” So in disgust, I reverted to checking Facebook on my phone. In light of writing this article, I insisted that we try again to find a way to check in with each other and communicate about our day. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day!
Another problem with family dinners highlighted in Wendy Mogel’s The Blessings of a Skinned Knee is something that she calls: Resentful Cooks and Ungrateful Families. Here is how it works: Tom makes dinner and wants everyone to appreciate his efforts and eat before the food gets cold. He resents being left alone to prepare everything while other family members just do their own thing. Think about it: the dinner-maker puts 45 minutes into preparing the meal and then the family often gobbles it down in 10 minutes like a pack of wolves!
Mogel suggests a possible solution to this dilemma is for each family member to help in some way by setting the table, getting the drinks poured, taking out condiments; that way, the effort is a shared responsibility. Once everyone is seated, the family can say a blessing which includes thanking the cook for preparing the meal.
Tonight, my husband and son are actually doing the cooking because I feel like the “resentful cook” described above. We decided that once a month, on a Sunday, they have to come up with a recipe and put together a meal. Maybe that will give them something to say when we go around the table and share our “best, worst, and silliest” events of the day! We’ll see how it goes….. I have to go now because I am hearing that familiar call from my youth, “DINNER!!!!!!!”
Many thanks to The Rotary Clubs of Jenkintown and Hatboro-Horsham and The Kiwanis Club of Jenkintown for their generous support of the News and Views from The Center for Parenting Education.