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Guarding Family Mealtimes

Research reminds us it's critical for parents to connect with their children at the table

"What's for dinner?" says Mike to his mother as he rushes through the door, late from soccer practice. "No time," says Mom. "I've got to get Janie to her piano lessons—just grab something. We'll get a bite to eat on the way, and Dad's eating at the office since he'll be home late."

If this scenario sounds familiar, I'm not reading your mail. I just know how busy you are—how busy we all are.

New school year. Fall sports season. Parents who work outside the home. Put them together and you have a dizzyingly hectic lifestyle, a lifestyle that often causes family mealtime to fall by the wayside. Sitting down for a family meal provides more than just good nutrition, though. It's a feeding of the soul, a time to share life as a family where simple moments are transformed into something beautiful and lasting.

In times past, children could be seen at the dinner table but were not to be heard. Thankfully, that has changed, as we now know the value of providing a safe and enjoyable mealtime environment for the entire family.

Benefits

Family mealtime is critical to your children's physical, emotional, and spiritual development, as well as their academic and behavioral progression.

Family mealtime is the primary avenue for parents to connect with their children. It's a time for parents to serve as role models, to encourage healthy eating habits, and to establish family traditions. Children benefit from the socialization, the establishment of family unity, and the increased literacy and language development that occur during mealtimes.

Social skills develop naturally when family mealtimes are a regular practice. Children learn through the observation and interaction that occurs in a mealtime setting.

Because families are so busy, mealtime may be the only time to have a real conversation. As kids participate in the conversations, they learn how to take turns skills, not to interrupt, and proper etiquette.

Mealtime can become a safe place to share personal thoughts, feelings, and opinions. I don't know of a single family that would say they are not closer to each other because of regular mealtimes that include the entire family.

A 2007 study at the National Center on Addiction & Substance Abuse at Columbia University reveals that children who have frequent family dinners are at a 70-percent lower risk for substance abuse and are half as likely to try cigarettes or marijuana compared to kids who have fewer than three family dinners per week.

Families that eat four or more meals a week together also tend to be healthier. Kids eat more fruits and vegetables when served a home-cooked meal or are instrumental in helping prepare the meal. And less fast food benefits everyone.

Making Memories

Family life is rarely perfect, but sharing conversation and food with those we love strengthens our ties and is one of life's continuing joys. Often the richest conversations, the moments of genuine intimacy, take place around the dinner table.

Some of my best memories come from a mealtime setting. It's where we create a unique family identity, sharing joys and sorrows, laughter and tears. It's a place where family traditions have come into existence, where we speak of God and his Word, where we grow and mature simultaneously.

The quality of the mealtime matters more than the quantity. Seven family meals a week eaten in front of the TV will not be nearly as beneficial as four meals a week eaten around a table without such distractions.

With a husband who runs his own business single-handedly and four children who are involved in regular volunteering and outreach ministries, piano lessons, dance classes, etc., dinner doesn't always happen at the same time, but it does happen—we make sure of it. Very rarely have we ever not had dinner together as an entire family.

As the lazy days of summer wind down and the fall schedule ramps up, guarding family mealtimes is more important than ever. We can make it work if we think of people first and food as secondary. It's not about having a daily five-course meal; it's about sharing life.

As culture continually pulls family members away from each other, family mealtimes are a very important way we can stay connected. Guarding family mealtimes has never been more crucial.

Making It Work

There are many practical ways we can ensure family mealtimes are a regular part of our weekly schedules. Here's how:

Be flexible. Dinner need not be at 5:00 without fail. As a business owner, my husband can't always clock out at 4:30, the end of his business hours. If he's going to be an hour late, he tells me as soon as possible and we plan for a 6:00 mealtime that evening. If he's super-busy, he'll come home for our family meal and then go back to work for a few more hours. Because family mealtime is a priority, we are willing to adjust to make it happen. It works the same way with our children's schedules. For families whose schedules make dinner together nearly impossible, breakfast or lunch together can have the same valuable benefits.

Plan ahead. While I may not always know exactly what time dinner will be, I do know in advance what we'll be having. Lack of planning is one reason family meals don't happen. And experientially I've learned to have a back-up plan just in case. For instance, one time I planned to have meatloaf for dinner but something unexpectedly came up. I didn't have an hour to bake the meatloaf and prepare everything else to go with it, but I did have the thawed beef, which I quickly turned into sloppy joes, and we were still able to have our family meal together.

Eliminate distractions. To make the most of our time during our one meal together each day, we place a ban on technology during the meal. That means no TV, no texting, no earbuds. Technology is great, but we don't want it to distract from what really matters at mealtime—togetherness and bonding.

Involve everyone. It's easy for my husband and me to monopolize the conversation since we haven't seen each other all day, so we must make a concerted effort to involve our four children, ranging from 6 to 16 years old. These conversations around the dinner table have been instrumental in teaching our children to put others ahead of themselves (Romans 12:3), to speak of what is pure, lovely, and admirable (Philippians 4:8), and to share in one another's joys and sorrows (Romans 12:15).

Keep mealtime pleasant. When mealtimes cease to be enjoyable, family members won't want to be present and may develop reasons to not be there. One time during dinner my husband addressed a daughter's behavior towards her siblings that day. She became so distraught that she couldn't eat her meal. We have learned to save tense or difficult discussions for another time since we want everyone to always desire to join together at mealtime.

Make mealtime a priority. A wise person once said that nothing worth doing comes easily. Making family mealtimes happen takes effort. It takes commitment. It takes intentionality. Let your family know why it's so important to you, but also let them know that they are expected to show up even if they don't want to eat. There have been times when, for whatever reason, one of our family members had already eaten, but she still came to the dinner table for the conversation and togetherness.

Keep it simple. A family meal doesn't need to be five courses served on fine china to be beneficial. Remember it's the togetherness that matters. Our family has had great mealtimes with nothing more than soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. When time permits, we may have an all-out Thanksgiving-style meal in the middle of July. Eating is one of life's most enjoyable pleasures, but it's even more satisfying when it's shared with those you love.

Additional Resources

Around the Table: Connecting with Your Family at Mealtimes by Sharon Fleming (ECS Ministries)

One Year of Dinner Table Devotions & Discussion Starters: 365 Opportunities to Grow Closer to God as a Family by Nancy Guthrie (Tyndale House)

Whatever Happened to Dinner? Recipes and Reflections for Family Mealtime by Melodie M. Davis (Herald Press)

The Meal Box: Fun Questions and Family Faith Tips to Get Mealtime Conversations Cookin' by Bret Nicholaus & Tom McGrath (Loyola Press)

Tammy Darling is a freelance writer who lives in Three Springs, Pennsylvania.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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