Over 20 years ago, when I was a new parent with my baby in my arms, I looked across the street into the dining room window of my neighbor’s house. Every evening, there was a candle lit, and I could see the adults at the table with their two teenagers. I saw that this family took the time to set the tone for a calm, pleasant family meal every day. I watched, and learned. Over the years, I have done my best to do the same as often as possible. Through all the ups and downs of our lives, we have more often than not, taken the time to sit at a our family table to share a meal.
As a professional, I have worked with many families whose mealtimes are vastly different. Sometimes family members just grab whatever is available, or they regularly eat in front of the television, or even in separate rooms. Eating is mostly about the food, and the whole piece about family connection and communication has been lost. Why does this happen?
Some of the reasons include conflicting schedules associated with a busy lifestyle, or people’s preferences for different foods so more than one meal is prepared and eaten at different times, or due to interference from screen time. The list goes on. The pendulum appears to have begun to swing the other way as our society recognizes that eating together at the family table is a way to slow down and reconnect, something we all need more and more of as the world speeds up. As a nutritionist, I know that sharing meals as a family is an important factor in raising healthy eaters. But family mealtime is about much more than food. It builds relationship and a sense of belonging. Remember, we are not just feeding our children food at the table, we are nurturing their sense of self, and their place in the family unit.
For some families I have worked with, the adults have barriers to family meals that stem from their own upbringing. They have less-than-fond memories of time at the family table. Perhaps the children were not allowed to speak, or were forced to sit there until they ate everything on their plates, or they were witness to parental discord. It’s understandable that instilling the habit of family meals may feel uncomfortable if your history is less than positive, but it’s worth the effort. Talk about your vision of family mealtime with you spouse or partner, and you can even include your children in the discussion if they are old enough.
Time at the family table is time to talk, and listen to one another. There are plenty of websites to help stimulate conversation if family mealtime is something new or awkward for you. Try browsing thefamilydinnerproject.org for some great ideas for all ages.
When we were getting to know each other in our new stepfamily years ago, we tried an idea that came from one of my colleagues. We instituted a daily “whoops” and “wow.” Each person got to tell the others about something that they wished had gone better, and then about the highlight of their day. The school-aged children loved it, and we got to hear about their day without having to ask many probing questions. It also gave us adults a nice way to tell each other about our day, and helped teach the children to listen and ask about others at the table
You don’t need to wait until everything is perfect to start sharing meals as a family. People often ask me “How many times a week should we eat together”? There is no precise answer. Once a week is better than none, and seven times are better than one. And don’t get too wrapped up in worrying that the family meal has to be perfectly nutritious. Why not clear some space off that cluttered table, turn off the electronics, sit down all together, and serve what you usually serve? The nutrition side of the meal can be improved later. I honestly would rather see a family talking and taking pleasure eating take-out at the table together, versus seeing two children eating a nutritious meal alone in front of the television without parents. And try and stay flexible, to fit your family. A meal at the family table can happen anytime that suits you. Maybe your schedules work better around breakfast, so that becomes your regular family mealtime.
If you set the habit of sitting down to eat as a family early on, it will be far easier to reinforce the habit when your busy teens are wanting to eat in front of their laptop or zoom off to see friends. That time at the table becomes even more precious as they grow up and you see them less. And don’t be hesitant to start early, by including your baby with the rest of the family at the table, even if he isn’t eating much yet. He will still be part of the group while he explores new foods.
When you have raised children with family meals, the family table becomes a place to come together. Now, when my young adult daughter comes home for a visit, I consider it a gift to have a family meal. The food and conversation we share continues to nourish our bodies and our relationship.
Image: Bo Gordy-Stith