If there’s one thing that was important to me as a parent, it was having dinner together as a family every night. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University has done extensive research on the importance of family dinners and their affect on teens’ mental, emotional and physical health. Having dinner together as a family has been linked to reduced substance abuse by teens, better grades, a reduction in eating disorders, healthier bodies and so much more. Barilla, one of my favorite pasta brands, created Share the Table to encourage more family dinners. If you’re looking for great family recipes and more inspiration, check out the Sunday Supper Movement.
So in our house, my kids sacrificed sports for sprouts. No, that’s not a typo. I put food over sports. I did not raise athletes. I raised my kids around the dinner table. I was adamant about sitting down together every evening for a meat and three (for you non-Southern folk, that’s a meat and three sides).
So sadly, my kids do not have stellar soccer skills or tumbling techniques. Thus, we did not have the everyone-gets-a-trophy shelf. I eschewed the suburban soccer lifestyle (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I proudly wore my badge of honor as the anti-soccer mom.
The important thing was that we had time together as a family to connect. Some nights it was organized conversation and other nights it was pure entertainment. We certainly were not the Cleavers. There were arguments, fights, and tears but more often than not, it was just a chance to hear about everyone’s day. The conversation certainly got more colorful as my kids got older, like which classmates were having sex, who was drinking, teachers behaving badly and other gossip. We’ve also been known to play some Cards Against Humanity at the dinner table (like I said, we were NOT the Cleavers).
Dinnertime definitely changed shape as my kids entered high school with demanding academics. I refused to give up on this tradition so there were often books on the table or a hurried meal to go study for a test. But it didn’t matter – as long as we had a few minutes to connect as a family.
Here are a few tips I’d offer to young families wanting to create this important family tradition:
- Limit activities that interfere with a family dinner hour. Everyone eats at a different time so whether you block off an hour at 6pm or 8pm, let everyone if your family know that’s a non-negotiable commitment. If you have the option of soccer practice at 4pm versus 6pm, choose the earlier time.
- Engage everyone in meal planning. Because I’m a travel addict, I always had this fantasy I called Family Dinner Travels. I would create an international meal, download information on that destination so we could all learn together and if I was really inspired and had the time, I would set the table with that international theme. Case in point: I make a mean curry so it was a great chance to talk about Thailand and learn the culture there. My husband traveled there many times and served as our tour guide over Thai curry.
- Have a list of conversation starters handy to change it up. My friend Beth told me they went around the table and everyone had to tell one good thing about their day and one bad thing. There are lots of conversation cards you can order online, and as I mentioned, we would just pull out the Cards Against Humanity. If your kids are a bit older, using the newspaper to stir up debate over current events works well.
- Too much homework? Sadly, kids are being sent home with more and more homework and often taking an hour out for dinner is stressful on kids. If all your child can spare is 15 minutes, that’s fine. Make the most of it. Incorporate the homework lesson into the discussion. Talk about the teacher, expectations, and where algebra will come in handy as an adult (who am I kidding? It doesn’t).
Now that my kids are young adults, I still insist on sitting down together for dinner when we’re together. On a recent family trip, we enjoyed some rather enlightening dinner conversation as my kids confessed all of their indiscretions growing up, like those times they skipped school, why they didn’t come home this night or that night, and other sordid tales. Was I really that naive?