In 2005 the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University released a list of benefits gained by having dinner together as a family that include: getting along well with your family, getting good grades, eating healthy foods, and avoiding drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol. Fifty-eight percent of teenagers ate dinner with their families at least 5 times a week, however the breakdown of the figures tells a bit of a different tale. Fifty-five percent of 12 year olds, or pre-teens, ate dinner with the family seven nights a week, but only 26% of 17 year olds do the same.
Meals together give us far more than biological nutrition; as children get older, they are often absent during meal time when they need nurturing and guidance that meal time conversation and togetherness can provide. With four very active teenagers, one of whom is a college student, I know as well as anyone the challenges of getting everyone on the same place at the same time. However, as with most things in life, the more family meals you share the easier they are to plan for and the more successful and beneficial they are.
Nutrition is also better during shared family meals than when everyone is on their own or even when everyone is together, but each having their own dinner. Shared family meals tend to mean less soda and fried foods, but more fruits and vegetables.
By now you are saying to yourself, “Great Mark, we are all so busy I can barely keep track of my family enough to get them fed at all and now you want me to feel guilty because we aren’t all around the dinner table?” To which let me assure you, “No, I do not want you to feel guilty or bad and my wife and I feel your pain”. So let me provide some suggestions as to how you can get everyone together more often.
· Decide as parents that meal times are a priority, how many times a week you are going to have family meals together, and what nights those will be. The nights may change if someone has a sports season or school event that conflicts. But remember, you are the parent. If the kids can’t drive yet, then they only go where you drive them. If they can drive and still live at home, some negotiation may be in order, but you have the final say.
· Be creative. If dinner simply isn’t possible, say because of work or school schedules, then eat breakfast together instead, or a combination of the two.
· Keep meals simple. Try to precut, or even precook anything that can be so preparation time is minimized.
· Say some sort of blessing. Even if your family is not particularly religious, voicing gratitude for the meal and to your family members for sharing it with you is certainly appropriate.
· Turn off TV! Unplug or turn off ringers on phones and cell phones.
· Sit around a table, facing each other. No standing or TV trays. No one leaves until the meal is complete.
· Ask good, specific questions, “What was one good thing that happened to you today?” or “What was one thing you learned today?”
· Remember that whether it’s scheduling family mealtimes, or the conversation during the mealtime, you will get better with practice.
I hope you find these tips helpful, if you have solutions that work for your family, email them to me and I will pass them along to the rest of us. Keep in mind that you only get to have a family of your own for a very finite, all too short, period of time; family meals will help you make the most of it.