The art of the family dinner
As a working mom with four busy elementary school-age kids, I know what a challenge it can be to orchestrate regular family meals — with freshly prepared food.
In my household, I’m the executive meal planner, grocery-getter and cook. On top of these responsibilities, comes the challenge of timing, coordinating and making a meal for a family of six when we all get home from school/work/practice/activities.
It’s a huge daily chore.
However, family dinnertime is a priority for me. I value the experience, no matter how challenging it can be to create it.
I’m learning too, especially as my children are growing older, that the simple act of sitting down together for a meal sets up a structure for connection and conversation for our entire family.
Research continues to highlight the physical and mental benefits of having regular family meals. According to The Family Dinner Project, some of the payoffs include:
- Better academic performance
- Higher self-esteem
- Greater sense of resilience
- Lower risk of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, depression and eating disorders
- Lower rates of obesity.
Family mealtimes are also opportune times for kids to learn — and practice — manners and social skills.
Behaviors our children master at mealtimes at home, when they’re under our circle of influence, can set the stage for how they act in public or at other people’s tables.
At our family table, we don’t run too tight of a ship, but we do have some basic expectations, such as taking turns and saying “please” and “thank you.” We also have high hopes of getting our kids out of our home knowing how to use a fork, spoon, knife and napkin.
Because we’ve made conversations at mealtimes a habit, my children have fallen into a comfortable routine of sharing bits and pieces about their lives outside of our home, though sometimes it takes a little prodding.
I love seeing pathways of connection and conversation grow between members of our family. So far, our kids talk to us each day, and we’re working to keep that ball rolling!
Making it happen
Getting meals on the table takes some planning and advanced preparation.
First, I try to hash out a general meal plan for the upcoming week (Monday–Friday) over the weekend by taking into consideration the schedules of our family. On nights I’m coaching or when I have a late meeting, I’ll plan for a quick supper or a crockpot meal. Then I often do some pre-cooking/meal prep on weekends or the night before to help things run a little smoother after work/school.
I’ve heard some families are finding success taking the meal-planning aspect out of the picture, by subscribing to a service — such as The Fresh 20 or even a meal-kit delivery service like Blue Apron — to make the challenge of getting home-cooked meals on the table a little easier.
Let go of perfection
Most of the time, the effort I put in behind the scenes plays out to create a dinner I’m able to share with the ones I love most. (Recently, I tried a recipe from the new book, The Dinner Plan, and loved it. Check it out.)
But sometimes it’s a flop. Sometimes our schedules just don’t allow us all to sit down for a meal together. Sometimes, after I work hard to try a cool, new recipe, I have a child whining about having to eat a vegetable or a bean. And, sometimes, dinner takes place with service from the drive-thru menu.
Timing doesn’t matter
According to The Family Dinner Project, the research suggests that families who eat dinner together at least five nights a week reap the greatest benefits.
But there is no magic number, nor is dinner inherently preferable to other meals. Breakfast time or weekend lunches can work, too, for families with more challenging schedules.
Whenever you do it or however you get your meals on the table, know that the value of sharing meals together as a family is worth your time!
Megan Devine is an elementary school teacher who lives in Northeastern Minnesota. She blogs at kidsandeggs.com.