Is a Family Meal Really That Important?

by | Sep 24, 2019 | Family

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by Lisa Reichelt, Parent Coach

Mom, Dad and 2 children at dinner table

Eating a meal together with your family is a universal experience. In fact, many TV shows and movies have used the family dinner as a scene to create comedy and drama (The Simpsons, Big Bang Theory, Blue Bloods, Seinfeld and The Office – to name a few.) But, is the family dinner table becoming an “endangered species?” Do most families still sit down together to eat and share the events of the day? Is a family meal really that important? Unfortunately, many families miss out on this extremely important family routine. Let’s explore the benefits and some strategies to revive this amazing ritual. 

Getting the most out of the family meal

As a parent you want your child to grow up and to have characteristics that will help him/her get along with others and be successful in relationships. Family dinners can be the best breeding ground for developing these character traits.

Listening skills grow when families eat together. The people around the table talk and take turns listening which also helps to foster empathy and understanding. As a way of starting the conversation, we asked our children to tell us about two positive things from their day and two challenging things. They were excited to share their positive experiences and sometimes hesitant about the challenges. But this practice helped them to learn to depend on the family to be supportive of them even in their struggles. Sharing your day with those you love is a great way to communicate the value you place on each other. Children will grow in self esteem and will feel a sense of belonging. 

  • Model good listening 
  • Foster empathy 
  • Build your child’s self worth and belonging

A typical family meal

The stereotype of a family dinner is of Mom creating a three or four item meal and hardly getting a chance to sit down to enjoy it because she is meeting everyone else’s needs. This doesn’t have to be the case. A family meal can be a simple meal, prepared by any family member. We have 5 children, so they took turns cooking during the week. That meant I didn’t have to make a dinner at all until Saturday! Since the kids were just learning how to cook, we sometimes had an interesting meal. I remember once my daughter mistook a garlic bulb for a garlic clove. She made a meatloaf that was too garlicky for everyone, except for Dad! 

Family meals need to be organized to allow for family interaction. Some past rules of etiquette could help out here. Did you know that it is considered rude to start eating before everyone is served their food? Perhaps at your house, everyone could wait until others have dished up the food and are seated before digging in. This would teach everyone patience and would demonstrate respect for others.

Another bygone practice is asking to be excused from the table. Again, the most polite way to dine is to stay at the table until everyone is finished eating. At that time you may ask the head of the table to be excused. We also insisted that the children “thank the cook.” The practice of thanking the cook took on a new significance when the kids started making the meals. You can choose your own routines and rituals for your family meal. These are just some ideas to get you started. 

  • Anyone can cook the meal
  • Structure your time together
  • Ask to be excused
  • Be sure to thank the cook

More benefits of a family meal

Researchers have been looking at family meals and how they impact human development. They have found an increase in language skills and fine motor dexterity among children who regularly eat family meals at home. In fact, the vocabulary development of the family meal out weighs the benefits of reading stories to your child! (Please don’t stop reading to your children! Just do both.)

Family meals have been shown to improve eating habits, especially in the area of fruits and vegetables and saves you money. Home cooked meals are healthier than restaurants and certainly less expensive. You can even teach your children to try new things by having meals at home without the risk of public embarrassment. One of the most impressive studies from Harvard found that children who regularly eat family meals are less likely to engage in risky behaviors in their teen years. The sense of belonging and family dynamics of the regular mealtime together helps to build your child’s self-esteem, sense of belonging and empathy for others. This reason alone should be enough to convince parents to establish this mealtime practice. 

Start today!

Even if you haven’t ever had a solid family meal time it’s not too late! Maybe you are thinking that dinner time doesn’t work for your family. That’s okay, you can try to have your family mealtime in the morning. If you’ve never had a family mealtime, don’t try to make it happen every day. Choose a goal, maybe you want to have 3 meals together each week. Start small and make it happen. 

Your family can learn and they will come to enjoy the time you spend together, I guarantee it! This summer, I hosted 7 grandchildren ages 3-9 for four days at our cabin. My “rule” was you stay at the table until all are finished eating. There were many groans when I announced that rule, but in the end, they had some fantastic conversation and many laughs. They created memories that will last a lifetime. 

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