Dear Parent Coach,
As we move into our family’s hectic spring schedule, I’m realizing we are having fewer and fewer family meals together. I’m not feeling good about this, but I can’t seem to make it happen. Are we really missing something important here, or are family meals a thing of the past?
Feeling Slightly Guilty
Dear Feeling Guilty,
You are not alone in your attempts to preserve family mealtime. Many parents sense the importance of sitting down with the whole family to eat, but are as frustrated as you are in trying to actually pull it off.
Scheduling the numerous activities of various family members becomes quite complicated, and mealtime often gets lost in the shuffle.
With the hectic lifestyle of today’s busy families, and economic conditions demanding that parents work longer hours, family mealtime traditions of the past may be on the verge of becoming obsolete.
The present trend seems to be away from an organized family dinnertime, with fast food options making it easier for families to keep moving to after-school involvements and into the early evening. This does not mean that family meals need to disappear altogether.
However, it does mean that if sharing evening meals is important to a family, mealtimes may need to be intentionally scheduled along with music lessons and sporting events.
In her book, “Traits of a Healthy Family,” author Dolores Curran reports that the families she surveyed rated family table time so highly that they placed it 13th on a list of 56 most important “family-building traits.” These families experienced enough positive results from sharing meals together, that they made them a priority in daily life.
When a family gathers around the kitchen table, there is an unspoken sense of belonging to one another. Just the act of being physically present together sends a powerful message of security to children, as they are reminded that these are the people who really love and care about them.
Sharing mealtime provides an opportunity for family members to listen to one another’s “pits and peaks” of the day, teaching children that every day has its ups and downs, even for Mom and Dad. Now there is opportunity to trouble shoot and support one another before another day ends.
At communal meals, achievements can be celebrated, encouragement given and the emotional well-being of family members detected. This is a time to relax into the comfort of familiarity and family ritual.
One mom reported to me that she had a tween son who rarely talked and never shared anything with the family — except at family meals. The comfort he felt in the family circle with traditional, favorite foods caused him to relax and open up more than at any other time.
A family “on the run” may be missing other benefits provided around a communal table. Parents can pass beliefs and values onto their children along with the food, as well as inform and educate about current events. This is the place and time for children to practice manners, as well as learn the give and take of communication skills.
In a recent study, conducted with a group of high school students who had all attained perfect SAT scores, a nod is given to the importance of family meals. After comparing various aspects of family life in these students’ families of origin, one common thread across the board for these students was that they all had family meals on a consistent basis growing up.
It was within the security of the family table that they had gained confidence as communicators, learned knowledge and values from their parents, and felt the encouragement and support of their family. Participation in family meals fed their minds and spirits as well as their bodies.
Little did they know that this family tradition would give them a boost in the college application process.
It is definitely harder these days to make traditional family meals happen, but the benefits to children and parents alike seem to merit the extra effort and scheduling it takes. It doesn’t matter so much what a family eats. It matters mostly that each family member is looking around a circle of faces thinking, “These are the people who love me and will be there to support me throughout my life.”
1. Plan ahead. Schedule a minimum of 3-4 family meals a week and say “No” to conflicting involvements.
2. Purchase a week’s supply of groceries, including crockpot meals that can be prepared in the morning.
3. During meals, encourage family members to share “pits and peaks” from their day.
4. Teach children the correct way to set the table and gently remind them about manners (but don’t ruin the fun by making this the main focus).
5. No screens allowed at family dinner.
6. Take advantage of more relaxed weekends to go out for breakfast together Saturday morning or have a family picnic in the park. Family meals can happen anywhere.