Why I still insist on family dinner time

Why I still insist on family dinner time L

One of the first posts I wrote on this blog all the way back in January 2008 was Why Planning Meals Works and the Importance of Shared Meal Time. At that stage of my life we had 10, 7, 5 and 2 year olds.

Every stage of family life provides challenges for a family meal time. When the kids were younger and we had added a baby to the mix, challenges were:

  • We needed to eat early for the younger ones – we would eat between 5.00 – 5.30pm usually. This meant I would eat with the kids and my husband would eat much later when he came home from work on weekdays, but on weekends we had two nights where everyone was present.
  • Getting the little ones to sit for the meal time – staying seated at this time of night could be challenging. They would often be over tired and want to lie down or wander off and play with toys.
  • Cranky babies – this time of night isn’t always a great time for babies, so many meals would see me with babe in arms, eating one handed.
  • Fussing over food – with many palates to satisfy, not every meal would be a winner with all kids. From the outset I decided I would only cook one meal and if the kids chose not to eat the meal, that was their choice, but there wasn’t anything else to eat. This could mean some nights one or more kids would be fussing over food they didn’t like.

There was a bit of a sweet spot when the kids were aged 15 – 5:

  • We would eat around 6pm and it worked well for all kids
  • There were no babies or toddlers to hold or wrangle at meal time, so I could eat with two pieces of cutlery!
  • The fussing over food has eased off – this was a combination of kids eating more variety and that the kids would just accept they didn’t like a meal, not eat it but not cause a fuss in the process.
  • There was less teaching of table manners – not as much need to tell kids to eat with their mouths closed, sit up straight etc, so conversations flowed more easily.

Now with the five kids aged 18 – 8, I still insist on family dinner time without distractions – that is no television, music or devices. This stage comes with some definite challenges:

  • We eat between 6.30 – 7.00pm – sometimes this is almost too late for the younger ones if it is closer to 7pm and the older ones will sometimes complain it is too early. This time is the best I can do so everyone can be at dinner together. Since changing jobs, my husband can be home at time and the kids will most often be back in from uni and after school activities etc.
  • The older ones resist having to come to the table – it doesn’t happen all of the time, but as a tactic to avoid having to “sit through” family dinner time, they will delay and have to be asked a number of times to come to the table. I am learning to be more patient with this and factor it in to setting the meal on the table.
  • They want to leave as soon as they have finished their meal – I am still old school with meal time and the kids need to ask if they can leave the table. 99% of the time they all need to wait at the table until everyone has finished and this can bother the older kids some nights.
  • There is competition for air time – some nights everyone has something they want to say. For example if a couple of kids are talking at length on a shared topic, another child might start interrupting or being disruptive because they want to say something.
  • Sometimes they fight or pick on each other – this is the worst dinner time scenario for me. One child will say something, another will criticise, another will chip in and there is general negative energy at the table. On those nights, I will try to change the subject, distract etc, but most often I just try to get us through that meal time as quick as possible. You have to read the moods at the table and work out whether or not they can be turned around.

Why I still insist on family dinner time

Why, with all of those challenges do I still persist with a family dinner time? Because it works really well about 70% of the time and this is the only time across the day where we all together, so to me it is worth the effort.

As the kids get older, there are less and less times when we are together as a family. The 18 year old rarely comes out with us on non family related occasions and the 15 and 13 year olds have busy social lives as well, so even if they wanted to come out with us, they may already have a prior engagement to attend.

Yes, sometimes they drag their feet coming to the table and will sit down in a bad mood, but by the end of the meal on most occasions they will be happily contributing to the conversation. And there are some hilarious moments of conversation that are had which build good will and shared memories.

Sometimes the post dinner conversation will go on for lengthy periods between differing members of the family. My kids never pick up a phone to ring a friend, there are occasional group conversations on some social platforms, but mainly there conversations with friends when they are not with them are all written. I think there is an art to conversation – I want the kids to learn that a conversation involves listening, empathy and not just talking about yourself all of the time.

And I am aware of the research which shows the positive impacts of having a family dinner time. This article from The Washington Post – The most important thing you can do with your kids? Eat dinner with them. is excellent and I highly recommend reading it in full, but the key benefits of family dinner time are as follows:

Brain food
For starters, researchers found that for young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read aloud to. The researchers counted the number of rare words – those not found on a list of 3,000 most common words – that the families used during dinner conversation. Young kids learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks aloud. Kids who have a large vocabulary read earlier and more easily.

Does a body good
Children who eat regular family dinners also consume more fruits, vegetables, vitamins and micronutrients, as well as fewer fried foods and soft drinks. And the nutritional benefits keep paying dividends even after kids grow up: young adults who ate regular family meals as teens are less likely to be obese and more likely to eat healthily once they live on their own.

Soul food
In addition, a stack of studies link regular family dinners with lowering a host of high risk teenage behaviors parents fear: smoking, binge drinking, marijuana use, violence, school problems, eating disorders and sexual activity. {source}

So while it may not always be easy and the older kids might want me to give up on it, a family dinner time is something I will keep on insisting upon. Just as we started off with a challenging phase, then an easier stage, I think the current stage is a challenging one, but it will also pass (at some point!). The 30% that are far from perfect (some even slightly disastrous!) and far out weighed by the joy and connection we receive from the 70% of dinner times that do go well.

Do you aim for a family dinner time?

If you find the working out what to cook part of family dinner time challenging, check out this post – A Family Menu Planning Process for my process on how I plan our meals.