In previous generations, family dinner was a staple, but life shifted in the past 20 years or so. Families now rush from activity to activity, cellphones are in everyone’s hands, and the TV has become part of the never-ending background noise. When it comes to saying NO to the rush and YES to family, regular meals (breakfast, lunch, or dinner) together may be one of the most important commitments you make. The research on family meals is overwhelmingly positive: it has been shown to boost a child’s vocabulary, promote healthy eating in kids, lower risky teen behavior, lower teen depression, promote resiliency in children who are victims of cyberbullying, and nurture higher positive emotions in youth.
For most families, sitting down for every meal will be impossible. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University looked at over 1000 teens and found that five to seven meals a week (breakfast, lunch, or dinner) is the number of meals needed for children and teens to reap the benefits of family dinners (and the benefits continue to increase as the number of family meals increases).
So what is the magic of family dinners? Yes, we tend to eat better when we all sit down together. But at the heart it’s not about the dinner table per se; it’s really about connection and fostering a sense of belonging.
The focus on family meals is quintessentially about our children having a space to be heard, a space to hear others, a space to identify with, a space where we can slow down the world and focus on what’s important.
Remember to start with small shifts. If you eat one meal together a week, try sitting down for two meals initially. Think about what your family needs and pick one goal. Is it less tension, is it greater conversation, is it trying more nutritious food together?
Focus more on the experience than an elaborate meal. Get the whole family involved in the prep, the experience, and the cleanup, as a family meal is not just about the time sitting down.
Consider adding a ritual to the family meal. This may mean blessing the food, having everyone identify something that they are grateful for, or taking turns initiating conversation starters.
Dinners can be challenging and so you may need to reflect on your own triggers and/or plan ahead with a partner on how to handle mealtime challenges in a manner that aligns with your values. Don’t give up—the more we practice, the more likely we are to experience positive outcomes.
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