Do you and your family have dinner together most nights? If you don't make a habit of doing so, you might be setting your kids up for heartache later in life.
In the interest of full-disclosure, this is something that we have to work at in the Daly household. We've been making progress, but we still have a way to go. With a hectic travel schedule and long days at the office, sometimes it's tough to be home in time for dinner.
Yet there's plenty of evidence that making dinner together a family priority is definitely worth the effort.
Consider the following:
- The largest federally funded study of American teenagers found a strong link between regular family meals and academic success. Eating dinner together also led to improved psychological health, as well as lower rates of alcohol and drug abuse, early sexual activity and suicide.
- A 2005 Columbia University study found that teenagers who eat with their families at least five times a week are more likely to get better grades and less likely to have substance abuse problems. In fact, the University of Michigan found that a regular family mealtime is the single greatest predictor of improved achievement — more than studying, sports or other school activities.
- A study of preschoolers found that mealtime conversations with children helped to build vocabulary more effectively than listening to stories or even reading aloud.
- Eating together as a family also appears to decrease the likelihood of teenagers developing eating disorders. Research conducted in Minnesota found that adolescent girls who ate with their families at least five times a week were at far less risk for anorexia and bulimia than girls who didn't eat with their families.
So, if your family has fallen out of the habit of sitting down together on a regular basis, what's the best way to get started again? It might sound trite but it's nevertheless true: Take it one night at a time.
Don't set yourself up for failure by trying to go from rarely eating together to dining as a family for seven nights in a row. Set aside one or two nights and protect them with great fervor. Once you get into a habit of a couple of nights together, try to add a couple more.
Keep in mind, though, that it's not just about sitting around a table together. There might be a benefit to proximity, but you want to get the most out of the experience.
It will likely take some planning to maximize a dinner with children. My wife works hard to ensure that our family is together around the table for the evening meal, and I greatly appreciate her efforts.
It would be much easier to just set out a plate of sandwiches or something that each of us could swipe as we scurry through the kitchen on the way to our next commitment. Instead, Jean makes sure we all enjoy table time together, without interruptions. We make time to talk about the boys' day at school or just catch up as a family.
There's room for fun, too. We've been known to participate in a barbarian dinner, using only our hands to eat. No silverware allowed. To say that our young boys love Barbarian Night would be an understatement.
Sometimes, Jean will delay dinner so that I can eat with the family even if I have to work late. I recently learned from a friend that his family sometimes employs this same approach: His wife might give the kids a snack at 4:30 to tide them over until he gets home from work at 7:30. Then, the whole family sits down together. He says it's one of the best things his wife does for their family.
In today's fast-paced world, the dinner table might be the only place where families can gather together in the same room during the week. Your children will be under your roof for a relatively short time. Before you know it, they'll be away at school and tackling life on their own. One day you'll wake up and wonder where all time went.
Don't let the opportunity to eat together pass your family by. When we eat together with our children, we're nourishing more than our bodies. We're nourishing our hearts as well.