Now in its third year, Family Meals Month is intended to encourage people to set aside time at least a few days a week to convene the family around a home-cooked meal. Research has concluded time and again that when families eat together, the kids are happier and get better grades, the family is more cohesive and emotionally close, everyone eats better and both the family’s health and the family’s budget benefit. A 2010 study at Columbia University found that teenagers who frequently ate with their families tended to use drugs less often. Another study, this one at Cornell, showed that children who eat family dinners had fewer signs of depression. So why don’t people do it as often as they’d like to?
Often, parents tell me it’s that they just don’t have time. There is so much that can get in the way. The adults have jobs, family obligations (like elder care), volunteer or political work, time at the gym and maintaining connection with their partner and a social life. Grocery shopping, chores, home maintenance and childcare have to be done. Most kids have homework and are involved in sports and activities. Teens are navigating the complicated social scene and starting to date. And a new challenge is the pull, and distraction, of technology. It feels impossible to get everyone together at the same time around the same table, much less to prepare a wholesome meal.
The result? A recent study by the Toluna group shows that nearly half (47%) of parents say that they share fewer meals with their family than when they were growing up. And yet that same Toluna study shows that 78% of families see having dinner together as a priority. The good news is that nearly all (99%) of the families surveyed reported that they have at least one meal together as a family a week. And four in five (85%) typically have dinner together as a family four or more nights each week (accounting for more than half the dinners each week). The issue for most of these families is not that they are never having meals together but rather that they’d like to do it more often.
To pull it off, many parents need to rethink the idea that there isn’t “time”. It’s probably not that there isn’t time. It’s more likely that they need to look at how they are choosing to use it that determines whether there is “time” for more dinners at home with the family
Consider this: There are 168 hours in every week. A mealtime together, from prep time to clean up, may take less than an hour and a half. It’s up to each of us as parents, to think about how we can manage to sit down as a family for, say, 4 meals a week. That’s 1.5 hours x 4 dinners = 6 hours total out of your week. If you want to have dinner together on 5 nights, it only adds up to 7.5 hours of your week devoted to family meals. Only you can decide if it is worth 6 – 7 ½ hours a week for family health, happiness and togetherness! Only you can determine if you can squeeze another hour and a half a week out of your collective schedules to have an additional mealtime together.
7 Ways to Increase Family Dinner Times
If you would like to increase the number of times a week that your family eats dinner together, it might be helpful to consider these tips:
- Make sure the adults agree: These days, more and more young parents did not themselves grow up with regular family mealtimes. If you and your partner do not agree about how many times a week it is important to convene the family around a pleasant meal, it will be almost impossible to make it happen. Start with a conversation about the benefits of family meals and come to a clear and mutual decision about how often you will establish a family dinner time.
- Schedule family meal times. Make eating together a priority instead of something that will happen only if everyone happens to be around. If everyone knows, for example, that family meals happen on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 6:00 and Sunday at 5:00, other activities will be scheduled around them – at least most of the time.
- Be flexible. Sometimes parents have to work late for a special project or work an evening shift. Sometimes kids’ sports practices or other activities will compete with your preferred meal time. Get creative: You can set an earlier dinner so everyone can be there. A healthy snack in the afternoon can make it possible for dinner to happen later. Yes. Sometimes it’s all we can do to let everyone graze out of the slow cooker to accommodate competing schedules and to get everyone fed. Just don’t lose sight of the goal to bring the family together regularly to share food and conversation.
- Include everyone in planning. When everyone in a household (particularly teens) are involved in planning, they have a greater stake in the plans. Periodically review with the entire family what is practical and manageable as a family meal time schedule.
- Focus on the time, not the dinner. Remember that take out now and then or meals that can be thrown together in 15 minutes can still be nutritious, budget-friendly and sufficient for a family mealtime. If you really love to cook gourmet meals, do it — but preferably with the kids. Kids who cook with their parents are less likely to be picky eaters and more likely to stick around for the meal. Prepping food together can be as much a bonding experience as eating it.
- Ban technology at the table. If mealtimes are important to family bonding, each member needs to be truly present and not distracted by a phone, the TV or a tablet. Children learn the art of conversation by listening and talking. If you are out of practice yourself, find some discussion starters or word games on the internet to jump start family talk. Do spend a few minutes letting each member of the family share their day.
- Keep meal times happy. Dinner time is not the time to scold, nag, complain or discipline. It’s a time to set aside all that and focus on the positive aspects of being a family. Be interested in what interests the kids. Expand their world by including them in discussions about community and world events. Share jokes and stories. When people have a good time, they’ll want to do it more often.