Family Mealtime

By Anne Bokma on November 03, 2010
Is eating dinner together a quaint relic of the past or an essential daily nutrient for your family?

Family MealtimeThere was once a time when the traditional dinner hour was a given – mother proudly carried steaming dishes to the table, dad carved the beef, and kids minded their manners. The phone was silent. It’s a nostalgic scene worthy of a Norman Rockwell painting. Today’s chaotic dinners seem more like a scene out of a Salvador Dali painting. Parents get home late from work, too exhausted to turn on the oven. Teenagers text at the table. Grade schoolers fly off to soccer games or piano lessons. Toddlers squirm in their seats, itching to be plugged into their handheld games or prefer to eat in front of the television. Is it any wonder parents are tempted to pick up take-out on the way home from work or order in pizza?

Dinner’s Ready!
If you want your children to happily come when called for dinner, maximize the pleasure of the mealtime experience, says Anne Fishel, a family therapist and psychology professor at Harvard Medical School. “The purpose is to create a feeling of warm connection among family members.”

Some age-appropriate tips:

  • Preschoolers Engage them by playing word games or involving them in simple exercises such as guessing what ingredients are in a meal.
  • Schoolagers Consider scheduling fewer extra-curricular activities that cut into the dinner hour. Involve them in the menu planning and encourage them to open up over dinner.
  • Teens Avoid discussions that are likely to end up in conflict. And if they have food preferences that are different than yours, try to be accommodating.

Family MealtimeThe Baldwin-Thompson family of Hamilton, Ont., tries to maintain that old tradition. Janet Baldwin, her husband Paul Thompson and their kids Connor, 11, and Sydney, 9, eat dinner together almost every night of the week. While Janet occasionally pulls out all the stops to make a fancy meal, she usually prepares something that’s simple and nutritious – tuna melts on pitas, Greek pasta salad, fajitas with refried beans or scrambled eggs and bagels. The goal isn’t to create elaborate culinary creations, but to carve out a special time together. The supper hour is the one time of day they can share the news of their day and reconnect with each other.
Today, only 40 percent of families eat dinner together regularly – and usually that’s only two or three times a week, according to the Food Marketing Institute. About one-third of families admit to eating dinner in front of the TV. That’s a shame, says Anne Fishel, a family therapist and psychology professor at Harvard Medical School who has helped develop a web-based project called The Family Dinner Project (thefamilydinnerproject.org), which offers resources to promote and increase the frequency of family dinners. “Dinners are to families like sex is to couples. They are a medium for connection.”

THE PAYOFF
Fishel is a big proponent of bringing back the family dinner, primarily because it acts as a kind of vaccine, protecting kids from all types of harm.  Sharing food isn’t just physically nourishing, but also emotionally nourishing. Studies bear this out – the more often families eat together, the less likely kids will smoke, drink, do drugs, become depressed, get pregnant or consider suicide. And regular family meals are connected to improved academic performance, better nutrition and positive family connections. In fact, the body of research showing the positive benefits of family meals is so impressive that Fishel says she is often tempted to send home the troubled families she counsels to have dinner together. “Sometimes I think their time would be better spent at home making dinner with their family and sitting around the table for an hour,” she says. “It’s a fantasy I’ve had over and over again, telling my patients: ‘here are some recipes, now get out of here and have a nice family dinner.’ I don’t think people realize how big a punch that hour around the table packs.” In her private practice she often asks clients about their dinner rituals in an effort to better understand their family dynamics. “I often make mealtime a focus of therapy and I have found that many disconnected families find their way back to each other through a nightly commitment of family dinners.”

HOW OFTEN IS ENOUGH?
Studies looking at the benefits of family meals tend to use the magic number of five as the ideal for how often a family should gather together each week. But that doesn’t have to be five dinners, says Fishel. Any combination of breakfast, lunch and dinner will suffice. The duration of table time depends on the child’s developmental readiness. For toddlers that might be only five or 10 minutes; however, by the time children are about 10 they should be able to sit tight for 20 minutes to half an hour.

NOT WORTH THE SACRIFICE
The decrease in family dinners corresponds with the rise of double-income families. In our busy working lives, menu planning, grocery shopping and food preparation are often relegated to the back burner. By the time we get home, many parents are simply too tired to put in a second shift at the stove or to set a table. Technology must also bear some of the blame. The mesmerizing pull of the television, iPods and cell phones often interferes with mealtime connections. And our desire to enhance our children’s development with extra-curricular activities has jammed our schedules so tight that having dinner together is often not possible. As a result, the traditional family dinner gets sacrificed, says Fishel. But it’s not worth it. “What a family dinner has to offer in terms of a nurturing stimulating place to connect and share ideas is so much more important than winning medals on the soccer field.”

MAKING IT WORK

BE FLEXIBLE ABOUT THE TIMING
It’s not what time of day you sit down together, but the fact that you actually do it. For some families, dinner at 6 p.m. is simply not possible. In that case try feeding the kids a late afternoon snack and serve dinner between 7 and 8 p.m. Or make a point of having breakfast together most mornings of the week. Leisurely brunches on the weekend are another great way to build family ties. Teens can be night owls so try pulling them away from their computer and homework for a late night snack at the kitchen table.

SIMPLIFY MEAL PREP
There are a variety of ways to spend less time cooking in the kitchen and more time actually sitting with your family at the dinner table. Try picking up a cooked roasted chicken and ready-made salad from the grocery store or cook extra batches on the weekends for easy reheating during the week. Dust off your crock pot and start using it on a regular basis – toss in a few ingredients in the morning and come home at the end of the day to a house that smells yummy.

INVOLVE KIDS IN MEAL PLANNING
Give kids a job to do in the kitchen. Toddlers can tear lettuce and older kids can help with the cleanup. When you make your grocery list ask the kids what they’d like to eat that week. Encourage them to look up recipes and involve them in the meal planning process.

DON’T FIGHT
Agree that the dinner table will be neutral territory, off limits for discussing conflicts. This is not the time to argue about curfews, homework or whose turn it is to take out the trash. And try to avoid orders to “clean up your plate.” Do whatever it takes to make mealtime a pleasant experience.

Anne Bokma is a Hamilton-based writer and mother of two daughters, ages 13 and 10. They try to eat dinner together – with candles! – every night.

Published in November 2010.

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