Years ago, I romanticized about all the Pinterest-worthy meals I would make for my husband, steaming hot and ready to eat as soon as he walked in the door from work.
The truth is, this is me:
And unfortunately, a rotating menu of cold cereal doesn’t count as meal planning.
But despite my mama drama about planning and prepping meals, family dinner is an investment that’s well worth my time — and yours, quite frankly.
Research spanning several continents is all finding the same thing — eating meals together is one of the most important things a family can do.
According to the Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for families to share meals together, research has indicated that some benefits families are enjoying as a product of shared mealtime include lower usage of drugs and alcohol, fewer teen pregnancies, lower rates of depression and better academic performance.
“As a family therapist, I often have the impulse to tell families to go home and have dinner together rather than spending an hour with me,” said Anne Fishel, clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Family Dinner Project, in a recent Washington Post article.
I remember the day my parents bought the long wooden table that sits in our kitchen to this day. It was a precious item in our home. For months after it was purchased, my mother enforced strict rules about how we took care of
Gathered around the table.
the table. One rule included putting a book or a magazine behind our papers if we were going to use the table for writing, coloring or homework.
As I look at that table 20 years later, it bears the battle scars of four kids, a dozen moves, thousands of meal, and most importantly, innumerable memories.
It was around that table we told movie quotes for hours into the night.
It was around that table we held family council.
It was around that table we celebrated every holiday, every birthday, every achievement.
It was around that table we cried together.
It was around that table we told each other hard things.
It was around that table we knelt in prayer and studied our scriptures.
And in between all of that is a colorful palette of forgettable meals. By gathering at that alder wood table each night, it set a pattern for our family that helped us thrive in between the meals.
My family was not without problems. We’ve struggled through divorce, addictions, financial setbacks, emotional breakdowns — the usual helping of life’s disappointments. Family meals didn’t stop these things from happening. But it gave us a foundation of safety, a time of connectivity and an opportunity to slow down, even if just for a minute, from our busy schedules.
Fishel also reported in the Washington Post that teenagers who had regular family dinners had a more positive view of the future. One study out of New Zealand reported that those individuals who had regular meals with family had more positive moods.
Whether it’s a quick bite of leftover meatloaf and reheated broccoli, or a Thanksgiving Feast, family dinner has always been about more than just the food on the table. It’s about the atmosphere that surrounds it.
Creating a tech-free zone
One ingredient to the beneficial atmosphere family dinners can provide is simple: Unplugging.
It seems there is rarely a moment in the day that my phone is not glued to my hand. I use it constantly for emails for work, taking pictures of the cutest baby in existence (ahem, my daughter) and Facetiming with my family. I often have to remind myself that the people within the wall of my own kitchen are more important than whoever Facebook can connect me with.
Meal time is the perfect opportunity to put the phone down. And leave it down. Some parents enforce a ban on technology during meals. Some have a bin where phones go during dinner. Find what works for your family, and use your tech-free zone as a conversation starter for why you have decided to leave the smartphones out of the meal.
Maybe you are a family that likes to relax with a hot meal in front of the television to watch your favorite shows. You and me both, friend. But try finding times to turn off the tube and turn on the talking. If you’re like the Whitlocks and can’t miss an episode of the “Bachelor,” plan to have TV-free meals every other night of the week.
Starting the conversation
According to Fishel, a family’s conversation across the dinner table will do more to boost the vocabulary of your little one than reading to them out loud. Reasearchers found that children who grow up listening to conversations over the dinner table may start reading earlier and easier.
Jillian Zitting, a mom of two and small business owner, said one of the biggest blessing of their family dinners is the opportunity it gives them to check in with one another.
“We do this thing called the “trinity” every dinner too. You say one “brag”, one “grad” and one “desire”. It’s been so helpful to start up conversations and also keeping the conversation positive instead of falling into the trap of everyone complaining about their day,” Zitting said.
Having trouble getting the conversation started? The Family Dinner Project offers a few ideas for getting the whole family talking:
- Ask about your child’s favorite cartoon character or favorite game
- Ask about your children’s favorite moment of the day
- Share photos of family members during dinner and tell stories about them
- Parents: Tell the story of how you met
- Tell stories about your family history
- Share goals and follow-up with family members on their goals weekly
Set the standard early
Life is busy. Extra-cirricular activities for teens are more demanding than ever. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Dinner as a family every night? Sure, maybe at midnight!” If that’s you, don’t fret. The quality of parenthood isn’t measured by the number of homemade meals your kids Instagram.
Maybe Sunday is the only night of the week the whole family is home. Great. Set the standard now. Teach your kids that no matter what, they don’t miss Sunday dinner. If your kids learn from an early age that meals — whenever they are — are important to you, chances are it will be important to them too.
If you’re like me and hate meal planning and prepping with a fiery passion, think of it as an investment. And check out my Pinterest and Instagram accounts where I’m sharing some Din-spiration with you all week in support of the Family Dinner Project.
What are some of your go-to family meals? Head over to my Facebook page to share some of your favorites.