September 22, 2014

Eat Together

How to reclaim the tradition of eating together at the family table.

These are busy days and most are over-scheduled with family members headed in different directions. Families are likely to eat only a meal or two together each week. Are we missing out if we don’t eat together?

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University conducted a 2011 study that showed families who have fewer dinners (less than a few nights a week) together had teens who were four times more likely to use tobacco, twice as likely to use alcohol and two-and-a-half times more likely to use marijuana. But a more recent study in the Journal of Marriage and Family (June 2012) suggests the benefits of family dinner aren’t as strong or lasting as previous studies suggested. After doing interviews with middle or high school adolescents, and again between ages 18 and 26, the study suggests the extent of parental involvement in their kids’ daily lives—not just at the dinner table—is most important.

But the dinner table is still a time-honored tradition that offers a great way to connect that is unlike any other. Neil Kosofsky, a marriage and family therapist at the Relationship Institute in Royal Oak, MI, says gathering for dinner is an opportunity to feel connected and strengthen a sense of security and attachment to parents and loved ones. Simply eating dinner at the same table every day, he adds, doesn’t guarantee families will grow more emotionally attached or kids will have a stronger feeling of security. “What is essential is the time spent together, sharing an experience, engaging, and speaking and listening to each other.”

Make a Reservation

“Create family rituals. Schedule a weekly Friday night or a Sunday brunch,” Kosofsky suggests. Make it something everyone looks forward to, and connect it to something meaningful—like visiting grandparents, or a fun, family game night.

Teens may not relish family dinners at first, but strive for at least one night a week and let them pick a favorite dinner to make or bring home. Younger kids may enjoy theme dinners or picnics in the living room. Get the whole family involved with prep, and keep the mood light. The food doesn’t have to look perfect. Help create regular memories they will later cherish.

“It is certainly hard to get everyone together and have a healthy dinner at night,” agrees Dodie Ferguson, a Michigan parent of five. “My 15-year-old son has found that he really enjoys cooking and we love the help. Some days dinner can be a little ‘different’, but it’s always fun and its worth having the extra hand.”

Kids may not appreciate the rituals now, but as they grow into adulthood, they will treasure those times and model them for their own families, Kosofsky adds.

Be Fully Present

“The most important thing our kids want from us is our time and attention,” says Karen Friend Smith, author of “Reclaim Dinner.” If you come to dinner fully present, your kids will look forward to it because they know they have your attention, and it provides time to learn table manners, listen, and take turns in a conversation.

Here are some conversation starters:

  • If you could be an animal, what animal would you be?
  • If you could pick your own name, what would it be?
  • If you could have any super power, what would it be and why?
  • What was your high point of the day and low point of the day?
  • If you won $1,000, what would you spend it on?
  • Do you have a recurring dream?
  • If you had free lessons for a year, what would you want to learn?
  • What kind of music are you listening to?

Take the Challenge!

A website called reclaimdinner.com offers a free, 30-day challenge to raise awareness about the benefits of family dinner and is a stimulus to get started. You simply make the pledge to eat dinner at home more often. A daily email is sent to keep you motivated with ideas, conversation starters, recipes, and more.

“Some days will be magical. Others will be a disaster,” Smith says. “But collectively, over time, you will be amazed at what this one simple practice does for you and your family.”

Lisa Marie Metzler is a freelance journalist who’s written over 200 articles for magazines such as Healthy & Fit, Positive Thinking, and Families First.