Bringing Back the Family Dinner
These days families are busier than ever, particularly those with only one parent. Managing the calendar of children and/or teen activities, school functions, and social commitments can feel overwhelming. To get everything accomplished, often the more convenient option is to grab dinner in the car en route or eat at different times in order to accommodate the diverse schedules. While this may seem like the most efficient solution, it’s not necessarily the smartest one. Mealtimes are one of the most important activities a family can do together resulting in positive and long lasting benefits definitely worth the extra effort.
Most single parents probably feel they are running at a nonstop pace in an effort to stay on top of everything. It’s not easy holding the full responsibility of tasks and managing everything solo. Looking for ways to make life easier makes logical sense. In doing so, shifting or possibly compromising in order to complete areas that require higher priority becomes the norm. While life is often a balancing act, research clearly reflects one activity in particular is worth putting at the top of the list—family dinners.
If one thinks about it, it’s become a rarity for a family to come together as a complete unit and talk. Typically exchanges occur either coming or going, but sitting down as a family happens much less than most would like. It’s the time when families are able to discuss what’s going on in their lives face to face rather in passing or on a device. This opportunity to connect reaffirms the family bond and allows family members to engage in deeper interpersonal discussions.
The Search Institute is a nonprofit organization with a focus on children and family research. Recently it evaluated national input from parents and youth regarding strengths and weaknesses of families. The results revealed if there were established routines in place, family cohesion was increased across the board regardless of parental education level, family structure, or income. At the top of the list was family meals followed by meaningful traditions, and shared activities (Roehlkepartain & Syvertsen, 2014).
While some might say the family can similarly bond or talk while riding in a car or at events, the research supporting the importance of family meals is endless and somewhat surprising.
The below offers a brief list and corresponding studies supporting the benefits of family meals:
• Vocabulary Growth (Beals & Snow, 1996)
• Academic Achievement (CASA, 2007)
• Fewer Behavior Problems (Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001)
• Increased Intake of Fruits & Vegetables (Larson, Fulkerson, Story, & Neumark-Sztainer, 2013)
• Protects Against Pre-Teen Eating Disorders (Neumark-Sztainer, Wall, Haines, Story, Sherwood, & van den Berg, 2007)
• Reduces Risks of Teen Drinking, Smoking, or Illegal Drug Use (CASA, 2003)
While this insight provides convincing arguments for family meals, what if the family can’t be together every night for dinner?
If dinnertime isn’t an option every evening, breakfasts or lunches work as well. Just be sure the meal reflects a time to connect.
Are there a minimum number of meals per week a parent should shoot for?
Data suggests five times a week is optimum. It’s in a parent’s best interest to have the family eating together as much as possible. The meals, whether breakfast, lunch, or dinner aren’t necessarily as important as the time spent together. In research on 6-11 year-olds, it was revealed as few as five family meals a week were associated with positive social behaviors in children, school engagement, and decreased behavior problems (Lora, Sisson, DeGrace, & Morris, 2014).
Will the family watching television together during mealtime suffice?
While many parents turn to television during mealtimes to serve as a distraction in keeping younger children still and better behaved or even possibly an avoidance tactic with older ones, this approach diminishes the opportunity to interact as a family. Watching television and eating also contributes to overeating. Family meals need to consist of technology-free time.
Tips for Jumpstarting the Family Meal
Make Mealtime a Priority
It’s the parent’s responsibility to take the lead in organizing the meals amongst the family members, particularly teens. Make sure the children know this is an important time and everyone needs to be present. The parent sets the tone in establishing family norms.
Reframe A Meal As an “Event”—not a Burden
Ensure the mealtime is something the children look forward to, not avoid. Utilize preparing the meal as a time to relax for the parent (cooking can be therapeutic) and wind down. Whenever possible allow the children to assist in cooking or be part of the preparation process.
Maintain A Consistent Time (Consistency Breeds Habits)
In order to make anything a habit, actions need to be repeated over and over until they become the normative behavior. The best way to do this is to have set times so that everyone knows when it’s coming and builds that into his or her daily schedule.
Actively Engage in Conversations
The parent should make the effort to facilitate family discussions. If everyone sits at the dinner table and doesn’t talk, they simply can’t connect. Ask questions and inquire about what’s happening with the children, don’t allow the group to sit in silence. Make it a time to share!
Mealtimes can be a beneficial daily occurrence for all the family to enjoy. The key is to make them something to be looked forward to—partaking in a healthy meal with people you love and care about. Relax, engage, and leverage this family time to its full potential!
Beals, D. E., & Snow, C. E. (1994). Thunder is when the angels are upstairs bowling: Narratives and explanations at the dinner table. Journal of Narrative and Life History, 4, 331-352.
CASA. (2003). The importance of family dinners. New York: Columbia University.
CASA. (2007). The importance of family dinners III. New York: Columbia University.
Fulkerson, J. A., Pasch, K. E., Stigler, M. H., Farbakhsh, K., Perry, C. L., & Komro, K. A. (2010). Longitudinal associations between family dinner and adolescent perceptions of parent–child communication among racially diverse urban youth. Journal Of Family Psychology, 24(3), 261-270. doi:10.1037/a0019311
Hofferth, S. L., & Sandberg, J. F. (2001). How American children spend their time. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63, 295-308.
Larson, N., Fulkerson, J., Story, M., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2013). Shared meals among young adults are associated with better diet quality and predicted by family meal patterns during adolescence. Public Health Nutrition, 16(5), 883-93. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1368980012003539
Lora, K. R., Sisson, S. B., DeGrace, B. W., & Morris, A. S. (2014). Frequency of family meals and 6–11-year-old children’s social behaviors. Journal Of Family Psychology, 28(4), 577-582. doi:10.1037/fam0000014
Neumark-Sztainer, D., Wall, M., Haines, J., Story, M.,Sherwood, N. E., & van den Berg, P. A. (2007). Shared risk and protective factors for overweight and disordered eating in adolescents. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 33, 359-369.
Roehlkepartain, E. C., & Syvertsen, A. K. (2014). Family Strengths and Resilience: Insights from a National Study. Reclaiming Children & Youth, 23(2), 13-18.
Research reflects parents who are present at dinners are likely to have more frequent parent–child conversations, praise their children for a job well done, monitor their children’s whereabouts, and have discussions about school.
(Fulkerson, Pasch, Stigler, Farbakhsh, Perry, & Komro, 2010)
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