As many parents know, having a healthy, thriving family doesn’t just happen. Instead, it comes about by creating quality time together. Sitting down around the same table as a family to eat meals is one way to do just that.
When families eat together, they are not only nourishing their bodies, but also their relationships with one another, and the heart of the family as a whole. Plus, children have lower rates of depression, substance abuse and eating disorders, as well as higher self-esteem, better vocabularies and a greater sense of security. The meal itself, of course, isn’t the magic morsel. Instead it’s the company, conversation, laughter and sense of belonging that are cherished long past the time the plates are clean.
Another often-overlooked benefit of eating together is in the time immediately before and after the meal. Cooking together as a family, even if it just involves giving your child the task of cutting carrots for the salad, helps kids learn the skills of cooking, as well as how to make healthy choices when filling their plates. Cleaning up afterwards together helps save on time and energy, while also giving the family a common project, which is another way to intentionally swell the heart of the family.
For many of us, eating family meals is something that we want to do, but in real life, the after-school sports and late nights at the office seem to always win. What’s a parent to do?
Tips to make it happen
Schedule it. Take a look at the calendar and choose several evenings a week to have sit-down family meals — and not in front of the television, but at a table. And put the cell phones away. If one of the parents works out of town often, try Skyping a couple times a week so that the whole family can be “together” for the meal. Or, if the weather is nice, try packing a picnic dinner that the family can eat together “on location”…such as at a park near the parent’s workplace or at the Little League sports complex before a child’s game begins. And then make it a priority to be there!
Plan together. One common obstacle to eating together is picky palates. So, on these sit-down family dinner nights, choose together what to eat so that everyone is looking forward to the meal.
Cook ahead of time. Spend a weekend afternoon cooking meals, even as a family or with a friend. Freeze the meals in oven-ready containers so that when you get home from work, you can just pop a tray in the oven. This relieves some of the after-work stress of feeling you have to get home fast and make dinner so that your son can get to his game.
Mix it up. If your schedule is impossible to adjust so that everyone is home for dinner, try eating breakfast together. Or lunch on the weekends. And be creative! Perhaps at dinner, turn off all the lights and instead eat by candlelight! Do a themed meal (foods that begin with the letter R) or perhaps take turns creating a fun decoration for the table. Some families even eat dinner backwards on occasion — they start with dessert first, and then move on to their main entrée!
Get talking. To get conversation going, ask everyone what the high and low of their day was. Some families who have older children call this game “Happy/Crappy.” This allows people to slow down, reflect and share. Another idea is to say what you are thankful for that day. Finally, you could pick up a book or purchase a deck of conversation-topic cards for family-friendly topics.
However you choose to implement this into your family will do wonders for creating everlasting bonds! Each family is made up of different people with different circumstances, so it’s important to choose a plan that will fit your family’s unique style. If you haven’t made it a habit of eating together, you may want to start out being very patient with yourselves. Studies have shown that it takes a while for families to get into the rhythm of having harmonious rewarding mealtimes together. Commit to eating together three times a week for a month, and you will be pleasantly surprised by the end!