According to the web site www.thefamilydinnerproject.org, “Recent studies link regular family dinners with many behaviors that parents pray for: lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression, as well as higher grade-point averages and self-esteem. Studies also indicate that dinner conversation is a more potent vocabulary-booster than reading, and the stories told around the kitchen table help our children build resilience.” What other thing can you do as a parent that has so much benefit for so little effort?
Right now, some of you are saying, “This crazy woman doesn’t know our family’s schedule.” I get it. You’re busy. I remember the weeks that had multiple sports practices, school functions, board meetings and homework to finish. Sometimes you are just glad to shovel a little food into your kids on the way to the next thing on the agenda.
I’m not talking about serving a gourmet meal every night of the week. It really doesn’t matter if the meal is frozen fish sticks or even a Happy Meal. The key to this tip is to sit around a table. Maybe that table is in your local Wendy’s or Chipotle. That’s ok too. Just gather as a family and eat together. Ask each other about your day. Tell them about something you read or something that happened at work. Let them tell you about the math test that was so hard or the science experiment that went wrong.
If you’re new at this concept, you might have a jar of conversation starters that each person draws from. These might be something like “Tell us something that made you laugh today” or “Tell one new thing you learned today.” You can look on Pinterest for a million ideas for these kinds of prompts.
Put your phones away. Make this a family rule that no one is allowed to look at the phone or the tv until you’ve had dinner. Model this by putting a box or a basket on the table and having everyone stow their device until everyone is finished eating. It is a rare occasion that there is an emergency so important that it can’t wait for 30 minutes until you all get finished.
For those of you with younger kids, I know that mealtime might be the most stressful time of the day. Getting dinner on the table, trying to find something that your picky eaters won’t complain about, cleaning up milk spills and making sure the toddlers aren’t feeding their dinner to the dog make this time of day a hair-raising experience! Can I just encourage you to keep trying? There will come a day that you’ll have intelligent conversation and you won’t be reminding your preschooler to take another bite every 45 seconds.
Now that my kids are grown and gone, my favorite dinners are when they are gathered back around the family table. Yes, we’ve added more chairs to accommodate daughters-in-law and grandchildren and sometimes it’s a big messy event. We still have milk spills. Sometimes we have debates about politics or current events. But mostly what we have is laughter and teasing and everyone telling stories about things that have happened during the week. It’s a time to reconnect and share a little bit of our busy lives. Oh yeah, and we eat. I can guarantee it isn’t a gourmet meal and sometimes it’s just Chinese take -out or pizza. That really is the smallest detail. The best part is when we linger over the empty plates long after the meal is over because we’re still talking.
So as you’re slogging through the years of sippy cups and cutting everybody's meat, take heart. Eventually these meals will morph into something you’ll enjoy and in the meantime you’ll be getting to know the people that your children are becoming. And take it from a mama who has a few miles on the odometer….the results are worth it.