Is it something you grew up with? I did. I guess it's one of those things where you assume it's just 'what everybody does', until my friends staying for dinner in my teen years started commenting on how different that was....or maybe they meant, how different/weird my family was?!?! Who knows, haha!
Family mealtimes weres something Mark and I wanted to continue when we had our own kiddos. Baby led weaning helped make that a natural transition even when the kids were tiny as they could feed themselves, and so easily joined the family table. And yes, dinner time slowly crept backwards from 7.30pm to the positively nursing-home time of 5.30pm. Ok, sometimes even closer to five!
Sidenote: eating this early definitely resets your body clock. When friends want to go out to dinner at 7 or 8pm, I am quietly appalled and pretty much gnawing my own arm off by the time that hour rolls around!!! #sad
Why family mealtimes matter...
There are all kinds of benefits to family mealtimes. Honestly, the benefits can be far richer and deeper and more long lasting than seem possible in those crazy moments of tired kids, stressed parents, rushed evenings and chaotic dinner scenes. It may seem like there is no way it's so valuable in those moments! Yet there is all kinds of research around the long lasting value of family meals. A regular time to connect as a family, a seemingly simple routine, helps form a sense of family identity that is so powerful!
A short list of benefits to family meal times according to the research (based on eating together as a family 4-5 times a week)...
- Increased overall sense of family identity and connection
- Children more likely to do well in school, have a better vocabulary, have greater overall wellbeing, less anxiety, and accept parental boundaries
- Children less likely to do drugs, be obese, develop eating disorders, and hide things from their parents
- Children more likely to eat well, with a more varied diet and and a healthy ongoing relationship with food.
- Children learn conversational skills, develop a greater sense of self and learn how to develop and share opinions.
Now let's be honest, in the 'early years', family dinner time is not always a tranquil and leisurely affair. Guaranteed at least one person is crying sometime throughout dinner, amiright?? Food is dropped (or thrown). Children run wailing to their beds. Passionate discussions about 'food preferences' (ahem!) are had. And so on... If you live life with little kids, you know the drill!!! All I can say is.... press on. Persevere. Even when it's chaotic, the mere routine of family meals provides a sense of stability and family connection to your children. And it's a chance for them to learn and grow! And in the midst of the chaos, there will be slices of heaven where you will stop and look around the table at your clan and think... 'Wow. My family! How blessed we are!'.
It's just good to be together and to take stock of that. Slowly and surely, the snippets of real conversation, laughter and happy chatter emerge and extend. And you know what?? Even the tantrums, the tears and the challenging behaviours are authentic parts of the fabric of family life too. As weird as it sounds, it's okay that the dinner table is sometimes going to be the training ground for working through some of those tough things. Persevere. It gets better. It takes practise, and that's ok. Slowly you have to get up from the table to fetch things less than 12,533 times!!
Some of your greatest memories will be of moments that organically emerge while gathered around that crumb-strewn family table. They are your people. Mess and all. It's worth it.
A disclaimer (of course).
I totally get that family dinner times are not realistic for everyone. We are blessed that we can make it work for us... my hubby moved jobs a few years ago, largely in order to make sure he could be home in time for dinner with the kids - it was a pretty big family priority for us! But I know that it's simply not realistic or doable for everyone, especially when some parents are not getting home till way past dinner or even bedtime or studying or working at night, etc. But if family meal times sound like a deal you want to get in on, think outside the box to make it work for your tribe. Maybe a family breakfast is more realistic? It may be short and sweet but it would be a great way to start the day together! Maybe weekdays are just too hectic but over the weekend you are able to all gather around a table for every meal? Start with what you can and hopefully it can grow. I've even heard of families where the kids need to eat dinner earlier, but sit at the dinner table again when the working parent gets home, with a drink of milk or some little nibbles, so everyone can chat together while the parents have their dinner. Think outside the box and hopefully you can come up with a workable arrangement :)
If you are committed to making family meal times work for you, I wanted to share a few ideas on how to make that precious time even more meaningful for your family, if and when you feel you are keen to 'build on' to the basics!! I love the idea of maximising this daily ritual. These ideas are all things we do or have done. Not all at the same time, usually!!! ;) Some things might just work for a season. We may do one or two things a night for a few weeks or months, then try something new. Often factoring the age of the kids and how tired we all are too of course. These are things that worked for us. Run with them, and cut them to size for your tribe!
And if nothing else, just eat together. You may all be slurping soup in silence, there may be complaints and squabbles but trust me... the ritual itself has value. Little moments of sweetness will pop up, treasured moments and conversations and family memories will emerge. Even if the only basic requirement is that your whole clan gathers around the table to consume food and beverage, even if it's takeaway or leftovers, it's still worth it. And the more you persevere, the better it will get as everyone comes to accept this 'compulsory family fun' haha!
Five Ways to Make Family Dinners More Meaningful
1. 'Highs and Lows'
This 'game' has lots of different names but I'm sure you know the drill. Everyone around the table takes a turn to share the high and low points of their day. It's a wonderful way to get an insight into everyone's world without having to just ask 'Sooooooooo, how was your day??' (to which the universal response is usually a bland 'Good', right!?). Gotta say, the kids responses to this are usually so fascinating and often comical. It's a great chance to talk through the low points especially and really get a sense of your kid's day. And also so valuable for the kids to see that their parents are people too (gasp!) with their own highs and lows in life - they get a sneak peek into our adult world and can learn from our perspectives and how we handle things.
2. Question Time!
A few months ago, my husband Mark rediscovered an old question game called The Ungame from his childhood, which has card packs of moral and spiritual questions. It's been an fantastic way to bring up topics of conversations we might not usually think of and really gives us some insights to the fascinating worlds going on in our kids heads!
A quick google brings up all kind of question lists for children that you could use to provoke similar questions around the table... these simple questions often provoke deeper conversations and help everyone gain insight into other family members.
(More family dinner questions here and here).
3. The Appreciation Plate
Our Appreciation Plate is brought out on special occasions (birthdays and other celebrations) but I also bring it out every month or two for a few nights when I remember as well - or often the kids request it! You can read more about it here but the basic idea of the Appreciation Plate is that one lucky duck is chosen to eat dinner off the Appreciation Plate that night. While we eat, everyone else around the table takes a turn to say something they appreciate about the person who has the plate.
This has been a beautiful, simple way to build up sibling bonds, with the kids finding ways to tell each other (and us parents!) things they love and appreciate about everyone else in the clan. Really sweet and often powerful to see the things they notice. Building a vocabulary of love, support, kindness and appreciation amongst my children as siblings is super important to me... I want them to know how to tell each other how much they care for each other! For words of kindness to roll off the tongue, it can take practise - it's a skill to be learnt and a mindset to adopt. This is a simple way to start doing this early. Hopefully it continues long after we are gone :)
Also, I got this special plate made because I am a sentimental soul after any excuse for a potential family heirloom, haha! But any old op-shop plate that looks a bit different to the rest of your plates will do the job - hunt down one that is a different colour or pattern or whatever!
4. Get Grateful!
Nothing complicated or groundbreaking... but not something that just has to be saved for American Thanksgiving Dinners either! Go around the table and everyone shares something they are thankful for.
Always good to count (and share!) your blessings.
5. Value Sharing
We are a Christian family, so several of our family table rituals centre around our faith. Firstly, we pray at the start of every meal. The kids usually take turns praying if they want to (they usually want to!). We hold hands around the table, and listen as one of our clan shares a simple message of thanks to God. Then we dig in, often doing Highs and Lows, Ungame Questions or the Appreciation Plate while we eat our meal.
In the last year or so, we have introduced a very short family devotional towards the end of the meal...(like, 5-8 minutes kind of short!). We might sing some Christians songs or more often we read and discuss a Bible story - my husband,Mark reads aloud while leaving gaps in the story for the kids to fill in (loudly!). We find it works well to do this while everyone is 'contained' at the table (rather than waiting till bed time as we used to do... we now keep bedtime just for regular storytime) and then lingering eaters can finish off their food while we all chat. Mark has been wonderfully consistent in keeping this going, and it's been a great addition to our family table. The kids are learning so much and they love it!
Now, if the Christian / religious thing isn't your game, no worries! You might instead like to incorporate your own family values in other ways. You could begin the meal with a simple blessing or even a family motto or special quote (Go Team! haha). You could take turns sharing one thing you are thankful for before eating each night. You could finish up the meal by reading fables or stories with a moral centre that you could then discuss as a family. Always thought provoking! Or read poems! Plenty of options to make it work for your crew and your beliefs.
The Wrap Up...
According to Tolstoy, happy families are all alike... but as much as I love Tolstoy, I happen to think happy families can be quite a bit different! So, at the end of the day, I think it's great to prioritise family meal times, but make them work for YOU - with your own wonderful mix of life circumstances, different ages and family dynamics, different routines and schedules.
We personally might do all or one or none of these elements I've written about each night. Usually at least a couple of them but you know what life is like... sometimes getting everyone fed is success enough! Also, we usually focus on family meals on the week nights, whereas on the weekends we often let the kids eat earlier while we parents eat later as a sort of 'date night in'. I think it's important to recognise that routines can come and go and that is ok - things work well for different seasons and as those seasons of family life change, so too can our rhythms. The kids are at an age now (3, 5, 7) where we have really hit our family meal stride (everyone can sit and chat and participate) and hopefully this will continue - though I know as the kids get older, social/extracurricular lives may be ramping up and it will be harder to get everyone home for dinner together!
Rest assured, we have our fair share of dinner time tears, disruptions and every shade of the emotional rainbow. Trust me!!! ;) But we press on. I've shared some things we do that make our family meal times more meaningful for us. Maybe they will spark an interest in you, to try at your own family table... or simply savour that family meal time just as it is, in whatever way is working for you!