“What’s for dinner?” can be the most depressing and difficult question for busy parents to answer. After all, dinner is relentless. Night after night, whether you’re hitting the fast food drive-thru on the way to your kid’s lacrosse practice or taking the time to prepare a home-cooked meal, you’re going to have to do it again and again and again. As busy schedules take family members in various directions, the ability to sit down together for a meal gets even more complicated. Still, experts say it is worth the effort.
According to Anne Fishel, Ph.D, co-founder of The Family Dinner Project, 15 years of research confirms an amazing array of benefits. “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,” she writes. In addition, Fishel notes, “…regular family meals also lower the rates of obesity and eating disorders in children and adolescents.” And all that takes just about an hour a day. (Fishel, n.d.)
Why has dinnertime become so important? “In most industrialized countries, families don’t farm together, play musical instruments or stitch quilts on the porch,” Fishel explains. Gathering for dinner is, therefore, the most reliable way for families to connect. (Fishel, 2015) Unfortunately, long workdays, after school sports and other activities make prioritizing dinner a challenge.
It’s not (just) about the food.
Many experts recommend eating together as often as possible – even if that is just two or three times a week. However, if having dinner as a family is not possible most nights, consider having breakfast or weekend lunch together. While cultivating healthy eating habits is an acknowledged benefit of regular family meals, the food itself is not the most important part. The real benefit comes from being together and conversing in a warm and engaging atmosphere, ideally without the TV or other distractions.
Are you picturing your kids staring down at their plates and grunting one-word answers to your questions? Is your typical family meal more like a battleground? If so, you may need a little help to get some positive interaction going. Here are a few tips:
- Ask specific questions. Instead of, “How was school?” try asking questions like, “Who did you sit with at lunch?” or “What was the best thing that happened today?”
- Use questions to further the discussion (“And then what did you do?” or “How did that make you feel?”) but be careful not to turn the conversation into an interrogation.
- Stay away from difficult subjects. Keep mealtime relaxed and friendly. Save reprimands about homework, boyfriends, and messy rooms for another time.
- Talk about shared experiences. Recalling funny stories reinforces bonding. Remembering times your children overcame a challenge builds their confidence in their ability to solve problems.
- Get your kids to talk to each other. This alleviates the issue of one child dominating the conversation and builds their relationship with each other as well.
- Talk about your own day. Share positive experiences and also things that didn’t go well, or mistakes you made, and how you dealt with them.
- Encourage your children to find their own solutions to problems that come up. Offer guidance without stepping in to fix the issue.
- Have fun. Not every conversation has to be a teachable moment. Just enjoy each other’s company.
- Listen! Don’t ask a question and immediately start thinking of your next question or response. Be patient and actively listen to what others at the table have to say.
Finding Other Ways to Connect
When mealtimes are truly elusive, or, even when they aren’t, you can take advantage of other times to engage with family members.
- Try using the conversation starters above to talk with family members while you’re in the car. (This will require everyone to disconnect from phones, tablets and games.)
- Get outside for an impromptu walk or just sit on the deck and watch the clouds (or stars).
- Plan a family outing together and then take it.
- Embrace technology. Keep in touch throughout the day with email or text messages.
- Don’t give up on family dinner; just make it easier. Involve the rest of the family in planning and preparing a meal, including shopping and cleaning up.
If it has been awhile since your family has spent quality time together and you are sensing some tension, take it slowly. You may not be able to resolve everything in one meal or outing, but over time, with some patience — and trial and error — you will start to see positive changes. When issues are more serious than you can handle on your own, however, don’t hesitate to get help. Family therapy is an excellent way to improve communication and re-build relationships. For more information, contact Maria Droste’s Access Center at 303-867-4600.
Fishel, A. (n.d.) FAQ. TheFamilyDinnerProject.org. Retrieved on February 22, 2017, from https://thefamilydinnerproject.org/resources/faq/
Fishel, A. (2015) The most important thing you can do with your kids? Eat dinner with them. The Washington Post. Retrieved on February 22, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/01/12/the-most-important-thing-you-can-do-with-your-kids-eat-dinner-with-them/?utm_term=.dad2894f62db
Griffen, R.M. (2012) Family Dinners: Tips for Better Communication. WebMD.com. Retrieved on February 22, 2017, from https://www.webmd.com/parenting/features/family-dinner-conversation#1