It may seem like common sense that having dinner together as a family is good for your kids, but many parents take for granted how much a thirty-minute meal together can shape a child. Whether you're a regular Betty Crocker, whipping up everything from scratch, or you're like the rest of us - just doing the best we can, the dinner table has a lot of potential.
As Doris Christopher, founder of The Pampered Chef and author of Pampered Chef: The Busy Mom's Cookbook, writes: "The table is where we mark milestones, divulge dreams, bury hatchets, make deals, give thanks, plan vacations and tell jokes. It's also where children learn the lessons that families teach: manners, cooperation, communication, self-control, values, following directions, sitting still and taking turns." While Ms. Christopher's characterization of the dinner table might sound overstated, the fact of the matter is that experts have found that a child's experiences at the dinner table can be a good predictor of how kids will do later in life. According to Dr. Laura Markham who writes for Parenting Magazine, the more frequently kids eat dinner with their families, the better they perform in school, the less likely they are to become sexually active, suffer from depression or get involved with drugs or alcohol.
So, are the positive effects of dinner borne as a result of good old fashioned home cooking? Probably not. The results are more likely derived from the fact that families who eat together, talk more, stay more connected and build better relationships. Moreover, the routine of family dinners offers structure for kids and makes them more likely to do their homework and stay out of trouble. Children, even more than the rest of us, need something to count on every day. The security of nightly and/or frequent family dinners provides a sense of belonging and the ritual of sharing food with those we love gives kids the attention and nurturing they crave.
Here are some common obstacles that parents face when it comes to family dinner time and some suggested solutions:
Q: What if Mom and Dad don't live together?
Of course, it would be ideal of both parents could have dinner with their kids every night. But we don't live in an ideal world and family structures today are more complicated than those of yesteryear. So, we just do the best we can do. If you don't live with the other parent consider working together to establish a routine where the kids can count on sitting down to dinner with the family every night, regardless of who's house they're at. It might not technically be the "whole" family if one parent is missing, but the benefits of the nightly ritual are still there and your kids will benefit from it.
Q: What if the kids' extracurricular schedules keep them busy during dinner time?
Many kids today are "booked solid" after school. Whether its basketball practice or violin lessons, there's going to be days when one or more children just simply aren't available to sit down with the rest of the family. But, it might be worth some creative schedule re-arranging to get everyone together. Can you all eat dinner earlier or later for that night? Can you all gather for dessert before bedtime to squeeze in some family time?
Q: By the time I get home from work, I don't have the energy to make dinner.
After hectic work and extracurricular schedules, this is the single biggest obstacle for family meals. But the secret to getting past it is remembering that dinner doesn't have to be anything special. You can minimize prep time by cooking ahead of time and stashing dinners in the freezer for busy nights or choosing quick and simple recipes that can be whipped up in less than 30 minutes. The key is to get everyone to sit down together and eat a healthy, satisfying meal. There's no need to try to be Martha Stewart. Keep it simple, dinner should be a time for family to recharge and reconnect, not just another obligation for you.