Susan Bartell, Psy.D.
It’s not news to anyone that eating meals together as a family is important. A huge volume of research points to the fact that kids who share meals with their parents are less likely to use drugs and alcohol, more likely to do well in school, and more likely to eat healthfully.
It’s also an important time to connect with your children. We all rush around so much that even a few meals together each week will strengthen your family bond. Sharing that time gives your kids an opportunity to talk about their lives and see you as a role model—to hear about your job and what you did during the day and to see you taking care of them in a slowed-down way. You’re showing them the importance of being together, communicating about our lives, listening, and sharing.
Family meals are also a time for kids to learn manners. When you’re eating on the run or in the car, table manners don’t matter. But at home, kids learn that it’s important to sit down, eat with a knife and fork, and clean up the dishes when you’re done. They learn to participate in the family and help out.
As valuable as it is to share meals as a family, we also face a simple reality: Everyday life is very busy. Between our hectic schedules and our kids’ activities it can be difficult to make family mealtimes work. Sometimes those meals can also be stressful, despite our best intentions. Here are some ideas I suggest to families in my practice that I hope will work for you too.
Set some rules. I suggest that families have assigned seats because then you avoid a rush to the table and arguments over who’s going to sit where. I also think children should not bring toys or screens to the table. And I recommend that you have rules about how you treat each other: No yelling. Everyone takes turns talking. You can’t make fun of each other. These should be reinforced at every meal so everyone comes to the table feeling valued.
Keep the meal simple. When you want to have a cohesive family meal, especially if you have picky eaters, I recommend serving food everyone will like. It should be quick, easy, and healthy so it’s less about preparing a gourmet meal than about spending time together. If your kids are open to a wide range of foods, by all means continue offering them. But you don’t want to have your family dinner ruined because this is the time you chose to try a recipe no one has tasted and your fussiest eater refuses to eat.
Lower your expectations. You may dream of having deep conversations at the dinner table, but this is usually not realistic, especially with younger children. It may be enough of a challenge to have everyone sitting at the table together for a certain amount of time. Even 15 to 20 minutes can be an accomplishment! And rather than discussing what you feel is interesting, talk about things that will capture your kids’ attention. What children want to talk about might not seem important to you, but to them it’s really important. If you listen and pay attention and ask questions, that’s going to make them want to be there. And on the subject of lowering your expectations…
Don’t try for seven nights a week. If your goal is to have a family meal every day, you will feel like a failure if you don’t. And the last thing we need in our lives is more guilt and stress. If you can manage a family dinner once a week on Sunday nights, make the most of that. Or it could be breakfast because everyone is off and running after that.
It’s also valuable for kids to have a meal with one parent. Maybe the other parent who has to work late or has an evening commitment makes up that time with the kids on the weekend. They could have pancakes on Saturday mornings and sit and talk. If your family meal means that part of your family is together, I think that’s beautiful. Do the best you can within your circumstances, and realize that whatever you do is going to have a positive impact on your kids.