Making Family Meals a Priority
It used to be family meals were the way children were fed. Family meals, family dinner in particular, taught children communication skills, etiquette, patience and how to pretend to enjoy the meatloaf.
“As a kid, my family ate nearly every meal together and looking back it was probably one of the most important patterns my parents established,” said Maura Wilson, Tulsa mother of two young boys, Sean and Aiden.
Over the past 20 years the practice of family dinner has faded due, in part, to busy family schedules. With both parents working and kids being shuttled between activities into the evening hours, fast food has somehow proven faster and more convenient than mom whipping up a quick meal at home. Backpacks and briefcases are piled on the dinner table while meals are eaten in front of screens in the den or in a bedroom. Conversation occurs on social media instead of with family.
Empty Dinner Tables
Why are families not sharing meals? Dr. Michael Criss, associate professor of Human Development and Family Science at Oklahoma State University Michael, paints a vivid picture of the hectic lifestyle of today’s family.
“Imagine a parent running late due to a meeting that ran long at work,” Criss said. “She rushes to pick up her daughter from soccer practice and is exhausted so decides to pick up food at a local fast-food restaurant. The food is either eaten in the car or at a computer so the child can check Facebook and the parent can check any work-related emails.”
It used to be that dinnertime was communication time for adults and children. Conversation and laughter (even arguing) around the dinner table reunited the family unit. But communication methods have changed. With the onslaught of cell phones and social media, communication has become instantaneous from practically anywhere. What used to be discussed at the dinner table between parent and child has already been discussed in a text, quick phone call or email sometime during the day.
“I think what has changed in recent decades is the form or method of communication,” Criss said. “For instance, it’s not uncommon for parents to ask their children, especially those younger than 16 years, questions in the car as they transport them to school or various activities. With the cheap costs of cell phones, many families communicate through calls or texting.”
Wilson admits her family’s biggest obstacle to finding time to eat together is “making excuses.”
“We’re tired, lazy, hungry and who has time to map out meals,” she said. “I reason it’s easier and cheaper to run through a drive-through, grab a pizza or eat in the car on the way to flag football practice. The reality is we’re like so many other families I know, but not at all like the family I grew up in. Mom made it look so easy.”
Wilson works fulltime and her husband, Collin, travels several days a week for work. Finding time to sit down to dinner with their boys might happen two times a week. “Many days,” Wilson said, “it’s just an exhausted mom and two wild boys running through the back door ready to chow down. I frequently give into the incessant begging for cheese pizza Lunchables or Kid Cuisne frozen meals.”
Dr. Grace Freedman, founder and executive director of eatdinner.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping families make the commitment to eat dinner together on a regular basis, said, “As a culture, we have fallen into a bad habit of letting everyone ‘have it their way’ at the dinner table, which leads to separate foods, separate dinners and often separate activities at the table as adults and kids tune in to TV or social devices instead of each other.”
Benefits of Family Meals
While eating together nightly may be an unrealistic goal for some families, gathering at the table even three times a week can benefit communication between parents and children. Family dinner gives parents a way to touch base daily with kids of any age. Nightly check-ins at the dinner table lets parents hear about school and activities and can also be a way of taking notice of any issues or problems their children might be facing.
“Family meals can anchor both kids and adults,” Freedman said. “Parents get a few minutes a day to check in with their children and with each other. Kids really appreciate routine and knowing that there’s a regular check-in point when they can bring up issues or troubles they are facing. It also sends a signal to kids that family time is an important priority and that their parents want to spend time in conversation with them. Family dinner can be a time to laugh, talk and just enjoy each other’s company without rushing off to another activity.”
For young children, family meals are their first opportunity to be a part of a group setting and interaction. Families serve as the first training ground where children learn by observing the interaction between parents and siblings and learn the social skills necessary to have healthy relationships outside of the family.
“Younger children can learn a lot at the table, ranging from trying new foods to table manners to how to hold a conversation,” Freedman said. “They learn how to tell stories and listen to others, as well as new topics—really whatever their parents and older siblings might be talking about.”
Wilson admits it is not always easy getting her kids to settle in at the dinner table. “Sitting down to eat at home is usually about prying Wii controllers away and abating the whining over the vegetable du jour. Once we’re seated and eyes are dry, its wonderful to just see those little faces and chatter about who did what at school.”
For teens, said Criss, the family dinner can provide more opportunities for adolescents to spontaneously disclose information about their life and daily activities.
“Recent evidence suggests that when parents try to initiate or start conversations with their children about their daily activities at school and with friends, their children, especially older adolescents, often find this rather intrusive and may actually provide less information,” Criss said. “Many parents have reported to me that if they are patient, their children often will just spontaneously tell them about their day at dinner.”
A 2011 National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) study on the Importance of Family Dinners VII found a relationship between children having frequent dinners with their parents and a decreased risk of children smoking, drinking or using other drugs. The study also found that parental engagement fostered around the dinner table is one of the most potent tools to help parents raise healthy, drug-free children.
“It is easier to spot changes in behavior if you are regularly looking your children in the eye over the table,” Freedman said. “Older children and teens may be more motivated to ‘stay on course’ because they know their parents are tuned in to them.”
The ritual of family meals can improve a family’s eating habits. A study done by the Baylor College of Medicine found that meals eaten together as a family consisted of about 50 percent more fruits and vegetables than meals consumed alone. In addition, family meals are three times more likely to include low-fat choices and are far less likely to include soda.
Parents, Freedman said, are more conscious of cooking and serving healthy food when they are routinely making family dinner. “Serving food family-style has also been shown to improve portion control. Kids often need to eat less than their parents think they do, so if they are allowed to serve themselves small portions, they may eat more appropriate amounts.”
Morgan Peaden, RD, LD, nutrition educator for Tulsa Public Schools, said research has found that kids who eat regular family dinners have a higher intake of calcium, iron, fiber and many other essential vitamins and nutrients.
“Children who watch their parents eat fruits and vegetables are more likely to try the produce themselves,” Peaden said. “Don’t get discouraged when your child refuses to try new foods; it can take up to eight to12 introductions of a food before they actually try it.”
Tulsa mom Venesa Mares expects her children to eat what she has prepared for dinner. “For the most part they aren’t picky eaters,” she said. “But when I serve something new they have to try it out. Take a bite at least. So I know that when they are at school or elsewhere they are able to try and like new things.”
Peaden encourages parents to get the kids involved in the family meal preparation. “Kids active in the process of helping prepare meals are more likely to eat what they helped create.”
If kids are too busy to be involved in cooking, they can be responsible for setting the table, clearing the table or helping wash the dishes. Any stake in the family meal will bring parents and children together.
“Making family dinner is a challenge in busy households, so it’s great to get children helping out with the meal early on, when they are excited to help,” Freedman said. “It can be as simple as setting the table, putting milk or water on the table or clearing your own plate. Family dinner can be a time to teach teamwork.”
Family meals are not just better for a parent and child’s physical and mental health, but also the family budget. Family dinner saves money. According to eatdinner.org, cooked meals at home can be cheaper, healthier and even faster than take-out or delivery. One study reports that Americans spend on average $4.50 per person eating at home compared to spending $8.50 a person eating out.
Making Dinners Possible and Setting Boundaries:
To make family dinner possible, even on nights when parents are running late and kids are engaged in activities and homework, try to keep it simple.
“Family meals do not need to be elaborate,” Peaden said. “Moms might find it helpful to create a family menu for the week and compile a shopping list for everything at one time. Create a menu board with chalkboard paint to hang in your kitchen, write out the entire week’s menu. This lets your children know what to expect, get excited about future meals, and creates an extra push for you to follow through.”
Wilson said her goal is to sit down and eat together as a family more frequently.
“I want to quickly pull together well-balanced meals that we can all enjoy and I want to make the most of our family time when daddy is home,” she said. “My family goal would be for us to eat together five days a week. My personal goal would be to plan and shop for dinners ahead of time and stick to the plan.”
Menu planning saves time, money and stress Freedman said. “Since being too busy is the number one reason families struggle with making dinner routine, menu planning can really help make family dinner happen. When you know what you are making each night, the prep and cooking can go on auto-pilot. Plus, you can balance out meals, meat one night, meatless the next, effectively use left-overs or grocery specials, and be sure to include kid and parent favorites in the rotation.”
Wilson admits if she could learn how to diffuse an occasional uprising at the table, family mealtime might be a bit more pleasant.
“We always try to start with a short prayer,” she said. “The kids take turns or fight over whose turn it is and then there’s a modified holy war at the table while the food gets cold. We try to have good manners and ask to be excused. They’re just little guys, so I tend to be lenient, with the expectation that they don’t act like rabid gorillas.”
“Today, families are going to differ regarding such family dinner rules,” Criss said. “However, if parents want there to be continuous and open discussions among family members, fewer distractions and being open to other people’s viewpoints really would be very important. Children and adolescents are not going to communicate if they or someone else isn’t paying attention or if they are mocked or belittled because of their opinions.”
No devices at the dinner table is Freedman’s recommended rule. “My only rules are no TV, no cell phones, no devices. The point is to talk to each other. We don’t regulate the topics of conversation, although we expect everyone to be polite and considerate.”
What Family Dinner Means to Tulsans
“Family dinner has always been fun, but I really learned to understand its potential when my mother came to live with us due to illness.
Toward the end of her life, just getting to the table was exhausting for my mother – it took real effort. The fact that she struggled up those three steps to the dining room seemed to impact my children, and they engaged accordingly. At the time, my youngest was in kindergarten and the two oldest were middle schoolers. My husband and I would put aside work, we all would listen to tales of the kids’ adventures, and my mother would beam. That 45 minutes occupied solely by each other and a basic dinner became precious to us all. We have great memories from those days, but it also taught us to carry the practice forward. My two oldest are now in college, and the youngest is in middle school, and our best conversations still occur at the family table.” -Eileen Bradshaw, executive director, Community Food Bank of Eastern OK
“Oh family dinners. For as long as I can remember my mom prepared a sit down dinner most nights of the week. Even though she had a full-time job, she always prepared delicious, healthy dinners. I remember looking forward to dinner, as it was the only time in the day when we all sat together as a family and talked about our day. I remember as a small child little games and challenges we would do at dinner, like counting to 100 for a reward of $1! When we were really impressed with a meal, my dad would look at us with a gleam in his eyes and say, “I think this calls for, three cheers for the chef!!” Then we would erupt in hip hip horrays!!! I still do this now at my house with my husband and daughters. My husband and I have recently begun making family dinner a goal and it is becoming a wonderful tradition and helping us to come together and calmly communicate after a busy day.” -Heather Oakley, founder of Global Gardens
Find more information and take the “Set the Table, Tulsa” challenge here.