The Magic of Family Meals
Parents are busy. Kids are busy. Afternoons and evenings are bombarded by scheduled activities, day after day, week after week. I often hear complaints of the overwhelming busyness claiming families’ time, making actual family time a thing of the past. And yet, children and teens are more anxious, depressed and isolated than ever before, experiencing waves of debilitating social anxiety, school phobic behaviors, and suicidal thoughts. Many kids – and parents - are stressed, fatigued, eating poorly, feeling moody and unfocused.
Perhaps it is time to reclaim your family’s time. Time is after all, the only commodity you will never get back. I understand the inclination to provide your child with opportunities to experience sports, dance, art, and all of the other extracurricular activities that beckon their, and your time. There are also the societal norms and expectations to join the chorus in declaring just how busy your kids are doing this and that, but what about providing your child with ongoing opportunities to experience you? Time spent together with your children is precious. It is an investment, both in your relationship, and in the person your child will ultimately become. Significant evidence also suggests that simple family meals will help make your child healthier – both in mind and body.
Your job as a parent is not that of a facilitator – meaning, you are not a parent to simply comply and facilitate the current and passing whims of your child. Your job is to keep them safe and help them develop skills such as self-control, humility and conscientiousness, meaning they think of people other than themselves. Those are things that are the biggest predictors of future success in adulthood, not education, affluence or the number of activities your son or daughter engages in weekly.
To do this, you may have to start saying the word that many parents have shied away from over recent decades – ‘no.’ It is okay, and important to say no. No to more activities, no to the limitless use of devices, social media and video games, no to time poorly spent.
And yet, you will also start saying yes. Yes to time spent together. Yes to conversations, questions, and walks, yes to exploring your backyard, yes to family meals. You have to communicate to your child (and perhaps to yourself) that time spent together takes priority over all else.
Sitting down for family dinner -device free, no TV blaring in the background! -is good for the brain, body and spirit.
Brain: Research tells us that dinnertime conversation boosts young children’s vocabulary far more than being read aloud to. For school-age youngsters, regular mealtime is an even more powerful predictor of high achievement scores than time spent in school, doing homework, playing sports or doing art.
Body: Children who eat regular family dinners also consume more fruits, vegetables, vitamins and micronutrients, as well as fewer fried foods and soft drinks. And the nutritional benefits keep coming even after kids grow up: young adults who ate regular family meals as teens are less likely to be obese and more likely to eat healthily once they live on their own.
Soul: In addition, a multitude of studies link regular family dinners with lowering a host of high-risk teenage behaviors including smoking, binge drinking, marijuana use, violence, school problems, eating disorders and sexual activity. In one study of more than 5,000 Minnesota teens, researchers concluded that regular family dinners were associated with lower rates of depression and suicidal thoughts. In a very recent study, kids who had been victims of cyberbullying bounced back more readily if they had regular family dinners. Family dinners have been found to be a more powerful deterrent against high-risk teen behaviors than church attendance or good grades.
What is so magical about the family dinner? It is the most reliable way for families to connect and find out what’s going on with each other. This daily opportunity for connection is like a seat belt for traveling the often challenging road of childhood and adolescence. This summer, try lightening the schedule and give space for conversation, for good food and for small moments that will likely add up to meaningful connection.