Food for Thought: The Benefits of Family Dinner
There was an accident. A terrible, irreversible, accident.
A young family came to Hawaii for a family reunion. They stood amidst the downward growing roots of a massive banyan tree. The family dressed in beige slacks and matching white shirts. Three carefree girls smiled happily as their proud parents posed behind for their annual family photo. One sunny afternoon soon after, this family of five went to for a swim, only three came back.
I heard it on the news. A father and his six year old daughter had drowned in rough seas. Having two young daughters of my own, I was devastated by the story. Then, I learned that this tragedy had happened to my neighbors that had family in town for a reunion. They lived just behind my house. Just days earlier, my neighbor, a jolly older gentleman, had leaned through the fence that divides our property to tell me his daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughters would be visiting and that we should get our girls together to play. Only days later his six year old granddaughter and son-in-law had drowned. I couldn’t stop thinking of the family’s grief. It felt like it was my own, but it wasn’t. I could see my two daughters out the kitchen window climbing the mango tree and chasing our old blind chicken around the grassy patches in the backyard knowing just beyond the fence a family had been torn apart. With a heavy heart, I picked up the phone, called my husband and did the only thing I could think to do. I asked him to come home early for dinner.
My husband came home for dinner that night as early as he could sneak out of his busy workplace. With the help of my daughters, the table was set. We ate a simple meal of baked chicken, steamed broccoli, and Parmesan couscous. My children were overjoyed to have Daddy home so early to eat with us. My daughters and I usually ate before he came home and often, I am ashamed to admit, in front of the computer watching Little Einsteins or Peppa Pig episodes on Youtube. Exhausted from the day, I used mealtime as a way to get some peace and quiet. Too tired to interact.
This night was different. We looked at each other and talked. We shared what we were thankful for that day. My husband asked our daughters about school. We even, at our daughter’s suggestion, held hands and said “Grace”. I was so thankful to have these special people in my life. I didn’t want to waste another dinner staring at a screen just to have a moment of peace. I didn’t want quiet either. My daughters’ exuberant voices and lively giggles filled our home. It was the sound of love. It was the sound of my heart.
Our lives are busy and fast paced. With full time jobs, part-time jobs, after school activities, family obligations, and homework, fixing a home cooked meal is a challenge. It would be so much quicker, easier, and probably even cheaper to just get take-out from McDonald’s. Despite the myriad of challenges, making family dinner a priority can have numerous benefits. When we find time to prepare our own meals we make healthier, more informed choices about what we eat. We can buy locally, eat more fruits and vegetables, and reduce our carbon footprint. Family members of all ages can join in the preparation of family dinners. From chopping vegetables, setting the table, and doing the dishes, there is a job for everyone. This teaches youngsters responsibility. Also, inclusion in the food preparation from a young age can help develop budding future chefs.
Dinner is not only a time to develop healthy eating habits and building a love of cooking that can last into adulthood, it has been shown to have cognitive benefits as well. Family dinners can lead to better academic performance, increase vocabulary, improve self-esteem, and lead to a greater sense of resilience. Dinner can be a time for families to play words games to build vocabulary, discuss school projects, identify academic areas in need of assistance, and collaborate to develop goals for academic improvement. Dinner can be a time for families to check in with feelings and address the issues of the day. By eating together, families are sharing values and building bonds that promote resiliency in children.
The tragic accident of the summer served as a wake up call for my family and me but it doesn’t have to take a drastic event to make family dinner a priority. Perhaps you already agree that having family dinner is a great idea. For many of us, it is not the why, but the how. Knowing the benefits and wanting family dinner to happen, doesn’t make it any easier. How do we find time in our busy lives? If we do find time, how do we get them most out of the experience?
Here are a few ways I have tried to make family dinner work for my family:
Choose a night.
After the event of the summer, I had the lofty idea that we would eat dinner together as a family every night. I laid down the mandate, set the time, planned the weekly menu and sadly failed miserably. It just caused more stress and frustration as we were rushing now to another meet another scheduled event. In response to this, we just chose one weeknight where we would all dine together.
If dinner is just not working out, try to eat together at breakfast time. I have found that a nice weekend breakfast together is an great way to connect. Time spent together enjoying a meal is valuable no matter what time of the day.
Eat at a table.
Congratulations, your schedules align and you are all together for a meal. Go ahead and make it official and eat at a table. Even if it’s just one night a week or morning, engage the family in the process of getting the table ready. Involve the family members in setting the table, use actual utensils, fold napkins, bring out the special plates, get crazy, maybe even light a candle. This creates a sense that this is a special time with special people.
And listen. Take the time to ask questions about the day. Share your favorite part of the day. Use details when speaking to help model appropriate conversation skills and build vocabulary. Ask about what is going on at school. Offer to help with homework or volunteer in class. This is an important time to reconnect with each other and find out what is happening in daily lives.
Go easy on yourself.
When the stars align and you are all seated at the same table at the same time with hot food in front of you take the time to breath and pat yourself on the back. Family meals are a cause for celebration not another obligation to stress about. If eating together just didn’t happen this week, don’t beat yourself up about it.
I now view dinner as more than just a chore; something that I have to get done. It has become sacred time to appreciate the ones I love and hold most dear. People talk about sacred spaces. I view family meals as a sacred time. A time to look into each other’s eyes without distraction. Time to talk and time to listen. Time to appreciate each other and time to share our thoughts. A time to simply be together reap the cognitive, health, and psychological benefits of family meals. Life is too short not to.
Lori Peroff is a Hawaii State Teacher Fellow.