Sitting down for meals together offers families a regular chance to connect more deeply in an overly-scheduled world. The relaxed, unhurried banter about the happenings of the day while passing the salt and pepper or grabbing second helpings provides parents a glimpse into their child’s daily life they might not otherwise get.
Studies show the bonding and more intimate relationships developed during family table time result in plenty of other surprising benefits as well, including lower rates of depression, substance abuse and teen pregnancy, and higher grade-point averages and self-esteem.
Cari Brenek, a Texas mother of five kids ranging in age from 13 to 18, says her family looks forward to the time together.
“Everyone is so busy that we like us all to have a little face time at least four to five nights a week,” she says.
When her kids were younger and had more practices or games in the evening, a set eating time was scrapped in favor of whatever time the majority of her brood was home.
Years ago, Jane Precourt of Maine adopted that same flexibility in planning dinner for her two children.
“We still manage to do it seven days a week, even though we eat at 4 p.m. some days and 8 p.m. on others,” Precourt says. “It’s more of a challenge now, but I value the time together very much, and the kids have told me at various times that they do, too.”
The decision of both moms to choose a revolving dinner time to fit the night’s schedule helps them ensure more of the family can eat together more often, but that plan may not work for everyone. When it doesn’t, the eat-together meal doesn’t have to be in the evening, and certainly not every night.
Brenek, whose kids’ schools have similar start times, finds it easier to be consistent in the mornings. With seven schedules to consider, “weekday breakfasts are the only times that everyone is always home,” she says.
While she used to cook a hot breakfast each weekday, several of her kids now opt out of the morning meal, so those that eat grab something quick and convenient, and the rest just convene in the kitchen before heading out the door.
“They all sit together for morning devotional and prayer whether they eat or not,” she says.
Especially busy families may choose one particular meal that is on everyone’s schedule as an almost sacred time when everyone will eat together, perhaps Friday dinner or Sunday lunch.
Aside from the bonding that dedicated family face time provides, research shows that conversations and stories shared around the dinner table encourage kids to communicate more openly in general, and are better for building young vocabularies than reading.
Eating together provides health benefits, too. Sitting down to a meal makes eating a more conscious activity and provides a bigger measure of control over what and how much your family consumes. Being a gourmet cook isn’t necessary or even the point. Research shows that simply eating together regularly results in lower rates of obesity and eating disorders in children and adolescents.
Whether it’s basic table manners, family recipes and traditions, or world events, dinner table conversations are rife with subtle learning opportunities. But while healthy debate provides valuable food for thought, it’s often a good idea to ban matters of conflict or touchy subjects and stick to more inclusive topics. Table talk about disappointing grades or school conduct might be a recipe for mealtime disaster and better saved for a private chat at another time.
“We sit down around the same table my family sat at when I grew up, in chairs my parents bought in the 1950s, and we talk, and we share and we laugh,” says Precourt.
Brenek agrees that is the best benefit of sharing meals. “Sometimes (husband) Glen and I don’t say a word the whole meal. The kids are all busy talking, debating and joking,” she says. “Those are my favorite times.”
While there is no magic method for maximizing meal time, most agree that technology should be off the table, not because it’s a bad thing, but because it’s a distraction. Except in rare circumstances, there isn’t a call, text, or tweet that can’t wait until after everyone is excused.
But eating together and technology are not always mutually exclusive. A favorite TV series, movie or holiday special may call the whole family into the living room to watch together. And letting a different person choose music to stream in the background is a good way to keep kids at the table longer—and may just provide something else to talk about!
While certain standards might be kept regarding manners, talk topics and distractions, too many rigid rules can make the experience more of a chore than a cherished time. Create an environment for comfortable conversation and sharing, so that you’re guaranteed a dinner invitation the whole family is eager to accept.
By // Stacy Barry