Dinner time is important—but there are other ways to create special family moments with the kids.
There are times when listening to the experts can drive parents a little crazy with all the responsibilities and impossibilities of doing everything just right. Do you talk enough to your baby while breastfeeding to build vocabulary and early cognitive skills? Are your children doing the right chores to build a sense of responsibility? Have you found a toddler play group to build your preschooler’s social comfort?
But probably none of the supposed must-dos of parenthood have sunk into our collective consciousness more than the family dinner. The studies tell us that sitting down as a family, preferably with a nutritious, home-cooked supper, is practically a magic formula for happier, better-adjusted children. Such children are more likely to eat more healthfully and avoid obesity. They do better in school, have fewer mood issues and are less likely to fall into delinquent behavior.
So no matter how crazy the family schedules are, how late our work hours go or how involved the kids are with sports or rehearsals, many parents push themselves to the max to have the special bonding experience that they’ve been trained to believe happens only through a civilized, sit-down evening meal with the whole family. When they can’t manage it more than a few times a month, they feel like failures—they can only hope their children aren’t doomed.
Enough with the guilt and stress. The truth is that though a relaxed meal at home is certainly one great way for families to connect, and for kids to be exposed to a variety of nutritious foods, this is not the only way to achieve important family bonds. There is no particular magic in a pot roast.
A 2012 study showed why we should all worry less about the family dinner. It’s true that children who are regularly exposed to these meals are more likely to experience certain benefits, but that has much less to do with the meals than with other factors. For one thing, families who manage to have meals together tend to have other things in common: higher incomes, more time and fewer stresses. That’s not surprising—these are the families who can more easily muster the time and resources for regular dinners together. But those same factors also are associated with the other positive outcomes for children—school achievement, more nutritious food and the like.
In other words, family dinners might not be the key that creates all the benefits for children. Instead, it looks more like the result of comfortable family situations that help children in many ways.
Family meals do have value, the authors wrote. Like other activities in which families spend time interacting—the closeness, the communication and the sharing of ideas are all important. Children learn how to articulate their thoughts and feelings—their parents are in touch with what’s going on in their children’s lives.
But food isn’t required for that to happen. Any times that families gather and converse can serve the same function. Here are some methods that work if family dinners aren’t a comfortable fit for your tribe:
All that car time, driving kids to activities, can serve an important function. If you keep the music off and allow quiet time in the car, chances are your kids will start telling you things you’d never hear any other way.
Hiking (or a regular evening walk) is another quiet, stress-reducing activity that creates opportunities both to marvel at the things around us and to open up about things that have been on our minds. Remember that we naturally tend to fill in quiet times with conversation.
Think of chores that parents and kids can do together regularly: gardening, painting a room in the house, cooking, washing dishes, bathing the dog.
Create your own rituals around activities that your family likes and that will invite conversation. For my family, it was family reading time. Whether or not we’d had a dinner together, we would gather in the living room for an hour each weeknight with our books, from picture books to long tomes. Though we hadn’t intended it this way, it fostered our best discussions. One of us would read something in a book that reminded us of something that had happened that day or that had been on our minds or that raised a question. We would talk about it for a while and dip back into our books until someone brought up a different issue. Our kids all became avid readers, but in truth the family conversations were the real benefit. At first, we had to push our unwilling kids into going along. Then, when we fell out of the habit, it was our kids who begged for its return.
As for the dietary benefits of family dinners, Dina Rose, a sociologist who counsels families about healthy eating, suggests that it’s the variety of foods children are exposed to that matters, and the lack of “child-friendly foods” such as burgers and chicken tenders that kids tend to be served when they’re eating solo. To combat that, she suggests that parents give kids a dinner of leftovers from that or the previous day’s meals.
Remember that family meals can still be wonderful times if they’re not regular stress points of the week. Maybe you can manage them once or twice a week. Sunday brunch can be less fuss to prepare and at a time when there are no lessons, practices or daily homework to finish, no work shift that just ended. This could become a treasured family tradition. Breaking bread together doesn’t have to be over a dinner table.
By Karin Klein