Your situation is not unusual. In fact, it’s a growing concern for many families today. But viewed from the right angle, it could represent a hidden opportunity. Believe it or not, there’s tremendous potential here to raise the quality of life in your home and enhance the depth of your family relationships.
The importance of food to the health of our physical bodies is obvious. but the context in which we take this nourishment is equally crucial to our overall well-being. We are not animals that graze in a field or gather at a trough. We do not inhale our food and then wander away. We are supposed to get fed at the table in more ways than one.
Meals are a time for socializing, conversation, sharing, and celebration. Family meals can be powerful events in the lives of both children and adults. They can and should be an occasion for sharing the day’s events, decompressing, commiserating, and encouraging one another. They’re a time to laugh, learn how to speak and listen politely, instill values, establish one’s identity as a member of the family, welcome guests, and acknowledge God’s provision on a day-to-day basis.
How important and powerful is this experience of family togetherness at the dinner table? In a classic case of scientific research corroborating common sense, a 2010 study on “The Importance of Family Dinners” (published by Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse) found that teens who have five to seven family dinners per week are twice as likely to receive higher grades in school (A’s or B’s) and three times likelier to say that they have excellent relationships with their parents. They’re also many times less prone to experiment with smoking, drinking, and drug abuse as compared with those who have fewer than three family meals a week.
Unfortunately, family dinners are an endangered species. As in your case, they are widely threatened by over-commitment, crowded calendars, and electronic distractions such as TVs, computers, and phones. The good news is that this trend can often be resisted. But this requires intentionality. To be specific, it takes a deliberate decision on the part of every family member to make shared meals a priority. Here are some practical strategies you may want to consider:
- Set aside three, if not more, nights per week (perhaps including a “cook’s day off” meal after church on Sunday) to be designated for family meals. The expectation is that “all hands will be on deck,” even young children, unless prior notice is given.
- After considering the ages and abilities represented in your family, establish routines that will spread the work around, thus relieving mom of some of the burden of preparation. The tasks involved in planning the menu, preparing the various components of the meal, and cleaning up can be rotated among the able-bodied family members who are living at home. Younger children can learn to set the table. Everybody should help clear it.
- Table manners (including such niceties as pulling out chairs for the ladies and waiting to eat until everyone is seated and grace has been said) can and should be encouraged.
- Televisions should be turned off. Phones should be turned off, taken off the hook, or left unanswered. This is a time to talk to one another unhindered by the yammering of the tube or the demands of whomever decides to text or call you.
- Speaking of talking: you don’t want to restrict topics of conversation too severely, but it’s wise to address hot family issues at some other time. If mealtimes become a hotbed of constant bickering and animosity, no one will want to show up. Ideally, the family table should be a place of warmth, respect, safety, genuine interest in what everyone has to say, and mutual support. If the kids are having trouble with this, some role-modeling of respectful conversation from Mom and Dad will speak volumes. If no one seems to have much to say, you can stir the pot with a few open-ended questions, such as, “What was the highlight of your day?” or “What didn’t go well today?”
- While you’re at it, mealtimes can also provide opportunities to talk with your children about the foods they (and you) eat, and why some are definitely better than others. Obviously, learning by example at the table – sampling the foods you’re discussing – can help set patterns that will last a lifetime.
For assistance with the practical side of meal planning, you may want to take a look at subscription-based services such as those offered through
eMeals. They offer customized meal plans, recipes, and correlated shopping lists that help you focus on the relational aspect of mealtimes by taking the stress out of food preparation.
If you think it might be helpful to discuss this subject at greater length, call our Counseling department. Our staff counselors would consider it a privilege to speak with you over the phone.