Imagine if there was one, simple thing parents could do for their children that would lead to the following results: better mental and physical health, higher self-esteem, less risky behaviour, better academic performance, better communication skills and a better relationship between parent and child.
Twenty years of research has shown that this tool does, indeed, exist. It is the family meal. Dr Anne Fishel, Professor of Psychology at Harvard and co-founder of the Family Dinner Project, is an advocate for family meals and states that “so many of the things that I try to do in family therapy actually get accomplished by regular dinners.”
“Research shows having a family meal at home without distractions is important. Every day. Not doing that indicates that time spent at home with parents is the least-important priority. It doesn’t matter. It can be overlooked and forgotten. By communicating that time at home as a family is our highest priority, you are sending the message that family matters.” This advice comes from Dr Leonard Sax, a psychologist with 30 years of experience and the author of some very insightful parenting books. In his advice for parents, the family meal is a constant.
Communication is the antidote to so many issues that may afflict our children. Healthy communication is most effective in a relaxed, convivial setting. There are other occasions in family life that meet this requirement, but none that tops the family meal.
Here, the family members get to know one another better and, interestingly, they get to know themselves better. Through encountering the family as a group, as well as through the one-on-one interactions that occur, each person’s individuality blossoms before their own eyes.
Effective communication lies in allowing each person to express their own ideas and feelings without fear of condemnation. If the subject is truly inappropriate, parents can guide the conversation in the right direction, speaking the truth, but without criticizing the individual.
As G.K. Chesterton said, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
Parents want to find ways of communicating that suit what each person needs and to bring the family emotionally together during the meal. Periodic conversations between the spouses are a great way of coming up with ideas of how to make some regular meals possible, to identify areas of difficulty or needed growth, to set goals and to even come up with conversation ideas.
Make regular occasions for the whole family to gather. This may be impossible every day. The good news is research shows that even if only one parent is present, the whole family will reap the benefits of meal time. This is important because often both parents have to work and may have conflicting schedules. Lunch, breakfast or snacks can be highlighted as opportunities to eat together.
The point is that the parent who is on “duty” must try to set the tone of cheerfulness and togetherness for the meal. If it happens regularly that only one parent is at the meal, then the spouses can find ways to talk together about the ‘aha moments’ that arise. Research has shown that the more frequently the family eats together, the greater are the benefits for the children.
What is needed, however, is not perfection, but effort. Start with one meal a week, if necessary, and most likely the meal frequency will increase from there.
Family meals are informal, often lively, full of antics and spontaneity. Sometimes it is good to be proactive in dinner conversation to steer away from too much bathroom humour or squabbling. The Family Dinner Project has lists of conversation starters and mealtime games. Stories about our family members are also a good idea – immigrating, falling in love, overcoming adversity, childhood memories, funny real-life stories… All these connect us to something bigger.
Another idea is a gratitude journal in which one person writes down something for which each family member is grateful. Current events, jokes, upcoming family outings, the high and low of our day are all ways to get the conversation flowing. Children also learn much from watching their parents converse with each other about their day and what’s happening in the community and world. Try to engage each child.
You can enlist the help of the older children in drawing out their young siblings. With teens sometimes simple ideas are best – maybe antics about the family pet or another subject in which they are interested.
Conflict is inevitable in any size family. Irene Freundorfer, a mom of 10, suggests going easy on teaching manners. Rather than speaking, she uses hand signals to remind the children to eat with their mouths closed, keep their legs down and elbows off the table. Avoid contentious topics. Use humour to change the mood. Play some music and light some candles once in a while. Compile a list of the family’s favourite foods to cut down on the complaining. Good food does help!
As far as those little ones who keep getting up from the table, don’t worry. Even a short meal together is still a meal together. Just being together, eating and talking together for a short time puts you on the path to a happier, healthier family.
Children helping with the family meals is another way of getting them to be invested in the meal ritual. One survey of 1000 children showed that helping with dinner duties was correlated with good feelings. Have a child plan and make a meal with a parent one night. A weekly rotating schedule is an idea. Discuss this with the children. They often come up with good suggestions.
Special occasions help cement the family bond. The usual are important – Christmas, birthdays – but also those other ones that arise — someone got their driver’s license after three tries, special anniversaries in the family, weekly Sunday dinners. On these occasions, the special plates can be brought out and a little extra decoration added to the table. One of the kids can learn napkin folding or make a dessert or appetizer.
Another way to breathe life into the daily meal routine is to take the oldest child or children out for a meal. This changes the dynamic and can allow for deeper communication. We took our oldest to a restaurant that serves pizza while diners play board games. Perfect for teens who view questions with suspicion! Or have your own game night at home, playing cards while eating. A high tea to show the grandmas how much they are appreciated allows the children to plan, execute and participate in a special meal.
Having guests over for dinner occasionally can help the children be better behaved and to interact in new ways. This is good for any age and may be especially good for the teens as they pull away a bit and are in need of other, external good influences.
In the words of Irene Freundorfer:
“Supper time is an excellent occasion for everyone to review their day. Try to eat together as often as possible. Try not to eat in the car, on the run, or separately. Coming together around one table is very important. Share, talk, laugh, joke, enjoy. Your children are home for only a short time in your life. Build the memories. Plug into the power of family meals. Whether you talk about your work, the news, family lore, plans for vacations etc, you are helping your kids develop criteria, values, identity, sense of belonging and family intimacy.
“Too often the fast pace of today’s life erodes this special family ritual. Try to take care of it more. Keep extra-curriculars to a minimum. Safeguard meal-times. They are sacred family occasions. Take the phone off the hook while you are eating. Get rid of distractions, i.e., newspapers, iPods, toys, and TV screens. Make the event a moment of interaction, presence, and relationship.
“Set a nice table. Use proper serving dishes. Linger over the meal as the kids get older and have more to say. Learn to relax, slow down and savour the moment. I cannot stress this enough. Don’t allow the rush of life to encroach upon this valuable family time. You have the power to really make a difference in your family’s well-being by this simple daily ritual. Don’t be quick to let it slip through your fingers. Grab it while you can. You will be so much stronger for it.”