Dinner. Or Supper. It is the time, usually the last meal of day, when families sit down and eat together. Together is the operative word and you know this instinctively if you came from a family where good food was combined with good family conversation. If you did not have this experience growing up, then you will need to research the phenomenon and become familiar with the concept – because studies tell us that the family dinner is vital to the health of the family (3).
This is where palpable family bonding takes place. Communication channels are abuzz with daily happenings and future planning. That is as long as there isn’t a stinker at the table. A stinker shuts down the conversation – more about that later.
Research has revealed that the more often a family sits down and eats together, the less likely children will succumb to addictions and other dysfunctional behaviors. Your child may be 35% less likely to engage in disordered eating, 24% more likely to eat healthier foods and 12% less likely to be overweight (2). How do you go about giving your family this treasure that will yield rewards throughout generations?
First – you must personally commit to the principle of eating together as a family.
If you are serious, your family knows it. You will get much less push back and fewer requests to eat dinner in front of a favorite TV show if you have conviction. Children have radar that detects whether the parents are really committed to a principle or action. Think about how you speak and act if you really don’t care if Baby touches the vase on the coffee table. But note the difference in your actions and intent as Baby heads for the plate-glass window with a rock in hand. There is no doubt whether you are committed to action. Babies – and everyone else since the internal differences in a person who is half-committed and one who is fully committed.
Second – make the time sacred. That’s right, no exceptions. This is a challenge in this activity-charged world. Decide what is doable. If it is a family of many Teen Babies with many activities, you may need to make fewer than seven times a week sacred. Ideally, at least one weekend plus one week day should be immovable gathering times for everyone. Frequency of family dinners correlates with children making good choices later (2).
Third – Involve every family member in the process. It is essential that all family members participate and have a part in the meal. Menu planning, shopping, table setting, clearing and clean up are all a part of a successful family meal. Obviously, if the habit of a meal together is started when the Babies are little, it is not so difficult. Nevertheless, the time to start the dinner tradition that builds family cohesion is now.
What are some of the rituals that can enhance your chances of successful family meal times?
Plan the eats ahead of time. Plan menus a month at a time. This saves money and time spent shopping. Get your crock pot out of storage and explore slow cook recipes. Investigate those prepare-ahead meals that freeze and involve moms getting together to make a month’s worth – but they really are having a party. If you are excited about the food your family will be also. Check out foodie blogs like Mommy’s Kitchen for inspiration: http://www.mommyskitchen.net/2013/01/february-dinner-menu-monthly-menu-plan.html
Most important, even if you stop by your favorite fast food and bring home dinner in a sack, is to sit down all together and follow the rules of engagement.
What does the table look like? You might have Aunt Tillie’s old china that has decorated your buffet forever. Get it out and use it at regular intervals. Use chargers. Have a tablecloth that reflects the season. Take pictures. Everyone learns how to set and clear tables. You may want a series of dinners where each family member gets to serve the food to other family members.
Teach table setting. Do you remember how to set a table? If not, Ikea has some great placemats.
And then the fork is left”
Because most people are right-handed, the spoon and the knife sit at the right of the plate and the fork is on the left side. Where the salad plate and glasses go depends upon which side of the world you hail from. What holds in America changes in Europe. Decide what is “proper” for your family table.
The Rules of (Dinner) Engagement
The opportunity to sit together and create memories should be carefully protected. First, no electronics are allowed. Television off – conversation on. You may want to establish a pattern of each family member reporting the best thing about the day. Keep it positive. Establish a firm rule – no negatives or personal attacks while at the dinner table. No stinkers. You may need to have a special sit-down if you have a stinker in your family and give special instructions and consequences for bringing up negatives at the dinner table. Code is established for giving the stinker the “stink-eye” should he or she stray from the established “no stink thrown during dinner” rules. There is plenty of time outside of that golden dinner hour to deal with negative feelings and events.
What does this do for a Baby’s development? It yields patterns and forms and expectations of pleasant times at dinner. Manners, etiquette, food creativity and critique, and the art of conversation are learned skills through the vehicle of a family dinner. Babies have a template for how to conduct the business of dinner throughout their future lives.
It is never too late to make dinner with family a warm and positive event.
1. CASA. (2010). The importance of family dinners VI. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, Columbia University. Retrieved from http://www.casacolumbia.org/templates/publications_reports.aspx
2. Fiese, B. & Hammons, A. (2011). Is frequency of shared family meals related to the nutritional health of children and adolescents? Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 127, 1565-1574.
3. Musick, K. & Meier, A. (2012). Assessing Causality and persistence in associations between family dinners and adolescent well-being. Journal of Marriage and Family.