As those of you who follow my Facebook page may be aware, last week I had the privilege of attending The Family Dinner Conference, which was hosted by Time at the Table. I had the most fabulous day – listening to inspiring presentations about both the importance of and strategies for integrating family meals into our busy lives, and also getting to hang out with some of my favorite bloggers. I have to tell you, after reading some of these blogs for a couple of years now, it was quite a trip to meet the people behind the words in person!
While I’ve always instinctively felt that family meals were important, I’ve never really given a whole lot of thought to articulating why, or how I make it happen. But after hearing so many perspectives at the conference, I have done more reflecting and wanted to share what family meals look like in my home, some highlights from the conference and my own thoughts on why it’s so important, and tips for making it more of a reality in your own home.
My girls are on an early schedule – they wake up between 5:45 and 6:30am, which means bedtime is no later than 7pm. Backing into that bedtime, I try to have dinner on the table by 5:30pm. Unfortunately, during the week my hubby is rarely home before 7:30, so that means “family dinner” during the week is me and my girls, along with my mom when she comes for her weekly visits, and hubby reheats leftovers when he gets home. On the weekends we try to eat together when possible, but we also try to have the occasional date night which means the girls eat together early, and we go out later alone.
Sometimes, when my girls (ages 2 and 4) pretty much yell at me through the whole meal, I do wonder why I bother trying to make real food and sit with them to eat! For sure, it’s not easy getting a meal on the table that early, and it is often chaotic and stressful at the table. So why do I push on? Well, a few reasons:
- I learned when my older daughter was a toddler that she is MUCH more likely to try new foods when I am eating the same thing with her, and helping my kids learn to eat the same food we do is a high priority
- I am starving by 5:30, and I found that if I try to wait for my hubby to come home, I end up snacking from 5:30 until we eat at 8, which means I’m essentially eating two dinners – not a good thing!
- I have a dream that if I start now, when my kids are older they will come to appreciate our routine of having dinners together and it will become a time where we enjoy each other’s company
And in fact the conference gave me some reason to be optimistic about that last point – other attendees who have older kids said that they find their family dinners to be one of the most relaxing parts of their days, and some of the research presented suggests that older kids and teenagers really enjoy family dinners and depend on them as a way to stay grounded. I sure hope that turns out to be true for us, and that all the groundwork I am laying now pays off!
There are even more benefits to family dinners: extensive research shows that kids whose families have high quality meals together (meaning they are eating a relaxed meal, with laughter, in the same room as each other) have higher grade point averages, healthier eating habits and weights, engage in less risky behavior (e.g., drug abuse), and have higher self esteem. And as if that’s not enough, parents benefit too, showing higher levels of happiness than equally busy parents who do not manage to make family dinners happen on a regular basis.
Seems like a no-brainer, and yet the reality is that we do not have a culture that supports the family dinner as an institution. Parents work late and travel, and kids have activities scheduled into the evening. Plus, cooking is viewed by many as a chore to be avoided, a concept reinforced by heavy marketing from the food industry who jumps in to “save the day” with endless options for prepared meals that can be quickly heated up by individual family members to suit their own tastes and schedules.
So given all of the benefits, how can we overcome some of the challenges to making family meals a reality? I picked up some great tips at the conference which might help:
- Make the decision to make it happen! If you believe the marketing hype that the concept of the family meal is outdated, the obstacles will seem insurmountable Spend some time thinking about the research, your own values, and whether you think it would be worth making family meals a priority in your home. Without your own buy-in, there’s no chance of overcoming obstacles, but if you are committed, you CAN make it happen.
- Set realistic goals! If you NEVER have family meals and hate to cook, don’t set a goal that you are going to start having a homemade dinner as a family every night from now on! Maybe start with one meal a week, and make it an easy recipe that you’re already comfortable with. If you already eat together most nights, maybe you’re ready to start improving the quality by focusing on ways to keep the mood relaxed and encourage communication.
- Plan plan plan! This was a recurring theme throughout the day, and a skill that I am working hard to improve on this year. Whether it’s weekly meal plans, ongoing shopping lists, or make-ahead meals, a little planning goes a LONG way in helping make things a bit easier to get quality dinners on the table with a minimal amount of stress.
- Don’t cook every day! I know, I know, isn’t the point here to eat together every day? Well, yes, but it’s also important not to burn out! I love to cook, but after a few days straight I get pretty sick of being in the kitchen, and I also have a fridge full of leftovers. So between doubling (or tripling?) recipes and freezing half and having a night where the plan is to use up leftovers, it is not necessary to cook a new meal for every night of the week! I find that if I plan 3-4 meals, between eating out, leftovers, drawing on my freezer stash, and impromptu quick meals (e.g., french toast & fruit), I can get real food on the table almost every night without going too crazy.
- When your kids ask “what’s for dinner?”, the answer is always “I don’t know!” I think this tip from Jenny at Dinner: A Love Story is fabulous. I do this often to prevent my kids from whining about what we’re having before it’s even on the table, and I loved having it validated! Jenny’s point was that it’s better to not give kids any reason to be anything other than excited about sitting down together – and there is nothing more frustrating than rushing to get food on the table while the kids complain that they hate what you’re making, so it’s better to be a little mysterious to keep the mood as positive as possible.
- Family dinner doesn’t have to be dinner! The idea is to get everyone around the table to encourage healthy eating habits, share stories, and connect, but this can just as easily happen over breakfast or lunch. So while dinners together can be tough in my family, on the weekends we almost always eat breakfast and lunch together as a family of 4, something that I really value.
So what do you think? I’d love to hear from you about your experience with family dinners! Do they happen with any regularity in your house? What are your favorite tips and tricks, and what are the biggest challenges you face?