Like so much in our culture, the intrinsic value of family dinners are up for debate. Let’s take a quick look at this cultural institution
, and ask whether eating together has value. We believe it does.
- Do you have good memories of sitting around the table with family?
- Or how about memories of a Fourth of July or weely summer barbeques?
Eating and bonding go together.
But first, here’s a real story that may make you smile.
Dinner for Breakfast:
Janet and Sam had a problem. Their four busy children had tons of afterschool activities, from basketball, to Model UN to cheerleading. When it was time for dinner, they were lucky to have a single child at the table.
So, Janet made a decision. She woke up at 4:30 every morning and prepared dinner for breakfast! Gone were eggs and toast; and in came steak, veggies and salad. The kids loved it. They were together; they bonded and told stories - all while half asleep. It made memories that will last a lifetime.
Not all of us are as determined as Janet, but her emphasis on meals together is correct.
The Importance of Meals Together:
Studies have shown that teenagers who regularly eat dinner with their families are less likely to engage in illicit behavior involving drugs and alcohol and more likely to get better grades and be mentally and physically healthy.
A study done by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse revealed that teens who eat fewer than three family dinners per week compared to those who eat five to seven a week are twice as likely to use alcohol and tobacco and one and a half times more likely to use marijuana.
Last year, an opinion piece in the New York Times questioned the importance of the family dinner for teenagers, debating whether family dinners actually benefited teenagers or if the families that maintained regular family dinners had other advantages (i.e. money, or discretionary time) that improved their child’s health. The researchers’ studies found that regular family dinners might not bear as much importance as many may claim and that the effects that family dinners have is largely dependent on other variables.
It’s a fair debate, given that a family dinner together often signifies a family that may be less stressed and have more resources. After all, Janet could not be waking up at 4:30 am every morning if she had to go to work. Her husband, Sam, took care of making money. Janet made the house sing. Not everyone has that luxury. Many single parents, for instance, are just too stretched. Yet, it's still worth the effort.
Let's now look at how a consistent family dinner can affect kids on a more personal, rather than statistical and experimental, level.
A Personal Experience (Lily Kong):
Controlled experiments and research aside, as a teenager I’ve found that regular family dinners have been beneficial to me. For as long as I can remember, dinner has always been at 8 PM when my dad comes home from work. Adjustments were made, of course, if my dad had other plans or came home late, but everyone in my family knew that dinner would always be in the general range of 7:30 to 9 PM.
There are a number of reasons I believe that these regular dinners with my family were good for my sister and me while we were growing up:
- They established a set family time. Having an established regular dinnertime meant that our family reserved a specific time to spend with each other. Unless my sister and I had other dinner plans, we almost always made sure we came home in time for dinner. Even to this day when I’m 18 and she’s 26, we both know dinnertime is family time, which means we come home before or around eight. Dinner was one of the only times that everyone in our family set aside for us.
- It’s a great time to play catch-up. Since dinner was one of the only times we were all free, it was a way for us to all find out how each other’s days were and update everyone else on what was going on in our lives. In many ways, dinnertime for my family is an informal family meeting, times when announcements were made and questions were posed and events were brought up. Family dinners make us more cohesive because everyone’s on the same page. In addition, having everyone there makes it easier for us to make decision as a family.
- It’s nice to return to your roots. I didn’t realize this until I went to college, but coming back home and getting to have a home-cooked meal is a comforting feeling. There isn’t a day in college during which I don’t miss my mom’s cooking, which has the extraordinary power to bring us all together as a family. As kids grow up, they leave home and move on from their childhood homes, but family dinners can be a huge comfort from the stresses of the outside world, especially if they were a regular occurrence during their childhoods.
- People connect over food. My sister once said this to me and it’s stuck with me since: “Food connects people. Why else do you think so many people go to dinner on dates?” When she first said this to me, I could think of a lot of reasons why people go to dinner on dates other than the fact that food connects people, but I’ve come to realize that food really does help establish closer relationships between people. I’ve become much closer friends with many people due to our mutual love of eating. Something as small as asking what someone wants to dinner or deciding what to eat makes the bond between people a little stronger.
By establishing a regular routine of eating together, I think that families can really become closer. If you think about the regular actions that occur when eating as a group, such as passing around dishes, sharing food, etc., these are all actions that physically and mentally create relationships between people. I think I can say for the most part that the majority of people love to eat, but that experience of eating is truly augmented when it is shared with others.
From the Couch (or dinner table):
There are reasons why, in our opinion, the importance of family dinners should not be diminished by studies and statistics. While difficult for many, the importance of family dinners comes from the experience of interacting with everyone else in your family, which is not quantifiable.
Elsewhere, we talked about Emotional Competence, which is a set of skills that helps relationships flourish. The family dinner, as Lily put it well, emphasizes many of these essential habits. When done well, these moments of togetherness ground everyone in mutual reliability, relatedness and even the capacity to forgive.
After all, if family dinners are angry or cold affairs, then the project is not working. People hurt or disappoint all the time, yet intimacy requires a certain flexibility and forgiveness. For family dinners to work, and no family need be perfect, you can’t hold onto every little hurt. For Lily, Janet and countless others, it works. They rise past the small issues and value one another.
Bonding is a sweet thing in this world.
Without doubt, not all families had the luxury of regular family dinners, whether it’s because of different schedules or they simply don’t have temperament for it.
And, it's a lot to ask of the average overbooked single parent. But if you have the time, even if it’s not on a regular basis, ask your kids, any significant others, your siblings, your parents, whoever, to take some time out of their day and have dinner together.
And, have a hearty appetite.
I want to thank Lily Kong, an intern from Wesleyan University, for her contribution to this piece.
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