When I was a kid, the main rule at dinner was ‘No elbows on the table’. In my husband’s family it was ‘No guns at the table.’ (He’s from the Back of Bourke). These days the family meal rule has to be ‘No gadgets at the table’. Dale Kerrigan summed it up beautifully in the old movie, The Castle when he said, “At dinner time the TV was definitely turned down!” If there’s any time that is sacred for families it’s meal times. More and more, research is showing that the family who eats together stays together.
Eating together is still the best way of connecting. It’s not like you’re always going to have the most amazing conversations, especially if you have small children. Sometimes they’ll be fighting or you’ll spend half the meal trying to get them to eat one piece of broccoli but like anything, if you persist, your family will get better at it. And it’s not just about spending quality time together; it’s also social training for your kids. It’s during family meal times that they learn how to make conversation, how to listen and take an interest in others. They learn how to fit in by all eating the same meal, even if it’s not their favourite. It’s good to have rules around the dinner table, because dinner table etiquette – like not speaking with your mouth full or not leaving the table until everybody’s finished or offering the last sausage around before you take it yourself – is all about learning to consider others.
Eating meals together also seems to provide all sorts of health and social benefits. Families that never eat together are more likely to be obese and depressed. Also, kids who watch TV at meal times eat fewer vegetables and more junk food. (Even if you don’t have a dining room or a dining table at your place you can sit together and listen to music instead of turning on the TV.) Eating together particularly has a big impact on the wellbeing of teenagers. A 2006 study found that children who frequently eat with their families have better results at school, are less depressed and less likely to drink alcohol, smoke, or use marijuana than children who ate with their families less than twice a week (Carson, 2006). So if you’re out doing activities every night of the week because you want your kids to get ahead, spending some time together around the dinner table may actually be more beneficial for your kids.
So if you’re new at this, here’s a few suggestions for how to make family meals a priority in your home…
1) Try not to schedule activities more than 2 nights a week, so that most of your family is home at least 5 nights a week.
2) Never let your kids eat in their bedroom.
3) Don’t eat in front of the TV. If your family has a favourite show that you like to watch together, record it and watch it after dinner.
4) Put on some music that everybody likes so you’re more likely to hang around.
5) Don’t let kids leave the table or eat dessert before everybody is finished.
6) Get everyone involved in cleaning up. I know Collett Smart often says they have their best conversations around the dishwasher; in our family it was always washing up.
7) If it’s been a long day remember that everybody feels better after they’ve eaten. Sometimes the best conversations come after dinner. A little treat or a hot chocolate after dinner might encourage the family to stick around and chat. When I was a kid, sometimes after dinner one of us was allowed to go to the corner store and buy a Mars Bar and we would share it between all 6 of us and really savour each bite.
PS. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s only important for families with kids at home. If you’re a couple without kids or empty nesters whose kids have moved out, don’t get into the habit of eating in front of the TV, just because the house seems a bit empty. Even if it’s just the two of you, the benefits of eating together are going to pay off!
Does your family eat together most nights? Or do work commitments or other activities make it impossible to eat as a family? How do you find time to connect as a family? What was your experience growing up?