Lots of families have increased time together this week during Winter Recess. Perhaps your family is enjoying a winter get away to the beach (that’s where I would go!) or to the ski slopes. Have you had some nice time to sit together around a table for a meal and conversation? If so, you’re doing a good thing. Perhaps even a better thing than you realize! Family meals matter.
As far back as 50 years ago, researchers looked at the results of family routines, such as family meals, for children’s well-being. Prominent institutions like Syracuse University, Georgetown and Harvard have come out citing the benefits of having regular family times together around a table of food. Even our first president’s diaries describe the good cheer produced from shared mealtimes. More recently, we’ve seen some excellent books that bring together the research with the practical applications we need to make it work for our overtaxed American families.
Here’s an appetizing sampler of quotes from some of today’s family meal spokespersons:
- “Basically, everything a parent worries about can be improved by the simple act of sitting down and sharing a meal.” - Laurie David, producer and author of "The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids One Meal At A Time," 2010 (also available on Kindle).
- “Better grades, healthier eating habits, closer relationships to parents and siblings, ability to resist negative peer pressure, resilience in the face of life's problems — all these are outcomes of simply sharing dinner on a regular basis… Experts everywhere agree: sharing meals helps cement family relationships, no matter how you define 'family.'" - Miriam Weinstein, author of "The Surprising Power of Family Meals: How Eating Together Makes Us Smarter, Stronger, Healthier and Happier," 2005.
- “The big picture is that family meals, and especially dinner, are the single most important activity that parents can do to enhance the life of their children.” Dr. William Doherty, master family therapist and author of numerous books on improving family life, including "The Intentional Family: How to Build Family Ties in Our Modern World," 1997.
That’s really pretty cool, isn’t it? What’s not to like?
I don’t think liking is the problem. We go to great lengths to give our children opportunities and advantages. This research shows very likable advantages. It’s the doing that gets in the way. How come? Well, our lives have gotten busy and complicated. Most parents, and even teens, are often tired. Oh, and have you ever had an unpleasant family meal when the baby is crying, the toddler got hungry hours before, the school age kids don’t like what you serve, or the teen, well, the teen would rather stay upstairs with the computer and phone? It’s not exactly something that encourages trying again.
Okay, the goal here isn’t to make you feel guilty. That is rarely helpful in producing change. Plenty of parents have seen this research, feel a little or a lot of guilt, try to make changes, find the challenge too hard, and go back to life as usual with meals on the run and everyone scattered according to their diverse work and activity schedule. But change is possible. And worth it! Here are my practical tips:
- Share the research results and let them pave the way for you. Your kids might get excited about this easy way towards academic success and less stress! Brainstorm ideas together.
- Start where you are. Start small. Start manageable. One step at a time is good advice.
- Keep at it. Stay hopeful. Focus on what you can do, not what you aren’t doing.
- Weinstein suggests that we remember that supper isn’t really the point. Shared nourishment and connection as a family is the real goal. Put your efforts there.
- The most gain comes when the family meal is enjoyable and includes talking together. Tell jokes, talk about the funny thing the family pet did today, your favorite commercial, the ideal family vacation, what your favorite part of the day was, etc.
- Loose the electronics (TV, cell phones, video games, etc) during the meal. All of them. Everyone’s. Including Mom’s and Dad’s iPhones. Really.
- Carve out and schedule the time to prioritize family meals. Our calendars show what’s important to us. Too busy already? Consider this—how did we find the minutes and hours we now spend texting, talking and tweeting?
There’s a lot more to say, but, you’re busy, right?! So chew on this quote from Weinstein to close:
“Families are people who nourish each other, spend time together [and] care about each other travel together through time. We need to eat several times a day. Linking that need with being together is a simple, direct way to strengthen our ties with our loved ones…Family life is rarely perfect, but some things can be pretty darn good. Sharing conversation and food with those we care about can be one of life's continuing joys.”
Tamera Schreur is a local psychotherapist with a new practice in Scarsdale, NY serving individuals, couples and families. She has 20 years of experience helping people build stronger relationships across the country and around the world. For more information, see her webpage, www.FamilyTherapyInWestchester.com.