A couple of weeks ago my ds11 had a friend over for two nights when his parents were away. During dinner the first night, he opted to read a book on the couch rather than eat with us (which was fine with me, I think he had eaten before coming). When ds was finally excused to leave the table, I overheard his friend tell him, “That was the longest dinner I ever heard of!”
I laughed when I heard that, and asked my kids why they supposed ‘dinner hour’ was called that! It used to be traditional for families to gather every evening to eat together, to share the events of the day, and to reconnect – and an hour was a typical amount of time families spent together. Last year a social worker I was chatting with told me that the family meal is a ritual that is becoming increasingly rare.
Nowadays it seems that meals have become about quickly refueling than being together. But to me, the need to refuel is an excuse for the family to get together! Because life is so hectic, it means we have to consciously carve out space for family members to be together in a relaxed and positive environment, and meals are the perfect opportunity! After all, you have to eat, right?
Studies have been done that show that kids from families that eat dinner together a few times a week go on to much higher levels of success in a number of areas of life, and to me that’s just science confirming common sense. It’s not the eating together itself that builds kids, as much as what happens when you eat together. It’s the values of parents who put mealtime at the top of the list that matter – because when parents make their families a priority and take time to connect, it shows.
Meal times are a fantastic time for family members to touch base with one another, to talk about their experiences of the day. It’s also such a valuable time to share ideas, experiences, and values. Parents, you have a captive audience, so capitalize on it! Seriously, share some interesting stories or ideas, ask the kids what they think about it. Last night I shared the story I had just read of the world’s most famous neurosurgeon and his academic struggles along the way. We can all learn so much from people who have pushed past their fears and comfort zones to create a new kind of life for themselves. That’s a powerful message to share, and you’re providing interesting content while everyone is munching away! While you don’t have to do that every night (and I certainly don’t), there’s plenty you can do to make mealtimes interesting and enjoyable for everyone.
At our dinners, I usually ask a question like: “What was the best thing about your day?” or “What are you especially grateful for today?” Everyone gets a turn, and everyone has to be quiet and listen to whoever is speaking, even the littles. We even ask ds17 months what he liked about his day! (Usually say something for him since he doesn’t talk yet and he looks at everyone and smiles.) Ds3 and ds4 both need some help formulating their thoughts sometimes, but it’s okay, because it’s a process. The idea isn’t that they have to perfectly put their thoughts in order as much as the practice in learning to look for the good and share about it with others.
So yes, it can take a while to have dinner together; our average time is about 45 minutes to an hour. For the time you invest, you get so much more back than what you put in! I strongly recommend that even if it means rearranging your schedules or cutting out extracurricular activities for some family members, that you consider making family mealtimes a priority several times a week (if not more!).