Eating dinner together helps families bond and communicate more effectively, and provides stability and structure for all involved.
As our culture careens headlong into becoming a mobile, rushed society, experts agree that the family dinnertime tradition is dwindling. According to research by the University of Minnesota, the past twenty years have seen a 33 percent decline in the number of families who eat dinner together regularly.
Unfortunately, the primary moments of family time now happen in the car, instead of at the dinner table, according to Stacy DeBroff, author of Sign Me Up! The Parent’s Complete Guide to Sports, Activities, Music Lessons, Dance Classes, and Other Extracurriculars.
More than a Meal
“Dinner offers a critical time during the day when your family has the chance to regroup and recreate the family culture that binds everyone together,” says DeBroff. “The family dinner hour often devolves into the family half-hour and finally into the fast-food circuit, where you ‘do’ drive-through and eat on-the-go between your child’s flute lesson and basketball practice. Amidst all the scurrying about, it’s easy to forget how gathering around a table to eat and talk centers your family.”
She recommends that parents make family dinners a priority by resolving to gather to eat dinner together at least four times a week, even if it’s just for a take-out meal like pizza.
“Dinner doesn’t have to be gourmet, it just has to be relaxed,” explains DeBroff. “Keep it simple on chaotic evenings. Have your child grab a snack to tide her over on tough nights when you can’t sit down to eat dinner until everyone finishes activities or comes home from work. Even if one parent can’t make it home in time, it is still valuable to have a family dinner.”
She adds that even babies who cannot talk or eat table food benefit from being included in the dinner activity.
Breaking Bread and Building Intimacy
Experts agree that it’s best if the dinner hour is a time for talking about light subjects and sharing tidbits about the day. It should be a time for laughing together and building intimacy as a family. DeBroff suggests keeping the conversation upbeat, as the whole point is to enjoy each other, not to use mealtime to discuss serious issues or grievances.
To increase the focus on the family, turn off the TV and the radio. Let an answering machine pick up any phone calls.
“Sitting around a table physically helps to bond a group, and breaking bread together unites people socially,” says Dr. Sally Goldberg, Ph.D., parenting specialist and Professor of Early Childhood Education at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.
Lisa Groen Braner, author of The Mother’s Book of Well-Being: Caring for Yourself So You Can Care for Your Baby, and a mother of two young children agrees. “Families need to bond, and the dinner table is a great place for that. Everyone has a chance to discuss their day, and listen to one another.” Her family shares the evening meal five to seven times a week. “The ritual of dinner, of breaking bread, is one that provides comfort to children and parents. Rituals can be as sacred as we make them, and a healthy dinner and thoughtfully set table nourishes our bodies and our souls.”
Rituals for Life
Family dinnertime rituals helps establish lifelong routines. “A day has important divisions, and the dinner meal serves to make a transition from the active part of the day to a more quiet part that will soon turn into a routine for getting ready for bed,” notes Dr. Goldberg. The time together also provides an important time for little ones to learn about manners and etiquette.
Furthermore, it can help provide security in an uncertain world. “What each person eats at dinner is less important than the fact that the opportunity for a nutritious meal is being provided on a regular basis,” she says.
In addition to building communication, the shared meal fosters a healthier lifestyle. “Our fast food culture provides convenience but not a healthy lifestyle. Children learn to like healthy foods the more often they’re exposed to them. Eating hamburgers on-the-run deprives children of that opportunity,” Braner says.
Family dinner may also ward off future problems, such as eating disorders. They are “…perhaps the most important ‘immunization’ against childhood eating disorders,” explains Abigail H. Natenshon, MA, LCSW, author of When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder: A Step-by-Step Workbook for Parents and Other Caregiversand a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders in kids and families.
“Not only do kids learn the pleasure of eating with those they love,” she says, “but through meals together, parents teach kids what healthy eating really is, as opposed to the misconception that healthy eating is about food restrictions and skipping meals.”
Natenshon adds that even when the family cannot be together in its totality, healthy meals should still be provided and no child should eat alone, even if this involves having a parent just joining the child at the table for companionship.
“Family dinners become a child’s best way to associate eating and food with love, nurturing, learning, and sharing,” she says. “It bonds children to families and families to children.”