Growing up in a family of seven meant that life was never dull. There were comings and goings and a constant stream of activities among five daughters. But we always came together for the evening meal.
Meal times were noisy; the dinner table was a place of spirited debate. Everyone was expected to contribute to conversation and differences of opinion were fostered. We were encouraged to think, to reflect and consider other points of view.
Dinners went on for hours and yet I don’t remember any of us ever complaining. We were expected to help set the table and serve dinner; participate in discussion at the table; and happily do the dishes afterwards. My dad always had seconds and he liked to take him time eating. Friends would often call but there was a strict “no interruptions” rule during dinnertime. They’d call back later – but we still hadn’t finished eating! They were incredulous.
But we were incredulous too at how other families ate. On many occasions I remember eating dinner at friends’ houses and being astonished that they ate in front of the TV or in a rushed or haphazard way. There was no formality about their meal times, and certainly not much conversation. I didn’t like it, and always felt much more comfortable around our family dinner table. Friends were always welcome to stay for dinner at our place, as my mum always cooked enough for spontaneous guests. They were amazed. Do you always eat like this? they would say.
And we did. Dinners were occasions. They weren’t just meals. They weren’t simply to fill our stomachs; food was something to be excited over, and to be appreciated. They were celebrations. The meal was something to linger over.
I am now trying to encourage the same family meal experience with my own children. Until recently I was cooking separate meals for the kids, which we ate at separate times. Now we sit down together and we all eat the same thing. The results have meant cleaner plates and also stronger ties. The kids are learning about food preparation, about contribution, and about connection. They are only young but an early age I think it’s important to set examples early. The interruptions are endless but I feel it’s a sacrifice worth having for the longer-term gain.
These days, in our hectic, hyper-scheduled culture, where eating in front of the TV or computer is more common than sitting around a table, the family meal often falls by the wayside. But a proper family meal in which engagement and conversation occurs will pay dividends.
The benefits are well established. Studies in many countries show that children who have regular family meals are more likely to do well at school, enjoy good mental health and eat nutritious food. A Harvard study concluded that family meals promote language development even more than does family story reading.
And the benefits don’t stop there. From better performance in school to decreased likelihood of substance abuse and lower rates of obesity, family meals have a positive impact on just about all aspects of kids' lives. And parents benefit too.
I am enjoying seeing my kids finish their meal, try new vegetables and ask questions about cooking methods. They are learning to listen, to participate in conversation and to compromise. I hasten to add that meal times in our household are not always fun. It only has to be a collision of a tired toddler, stressed parents and the wrong coloured vegetable and it’s a recipe for open warfare. But then, dealing with conflict is also an essential skill to learn.
I have also noticed an improvement in manners, gratitude and a willingness to try new things. My kids are a little young for robust discussion, but they are able to exchange ideas, anecdotes and dreams.
The family meal is a time to reconnect and enjoy being together. It’s often, over dinner that a kindergarten anecdote is shared in more detail than during the harried car trip home. It’s when my husband gets to hear about their day and share his own, it’s a time where we value everyone in the family.
Sometimes it’s chaos; other times it’s surprisingly calm. My parents gifted me with the family meal experience, and I am regifting it to my children. 20 years from now I hope we are all still gathering for such an important ritual.