Family Dinner: The Meal That Brings People Together
It’s more than just a nice idea. The family that eats together, stays together.
Written by Daniela O’Brien and Ida Gazzola
Ida Gazzola is the mother of 6 girls and one boy and lives in British Columbia, Canada. Before embarking on the adventure of parenting, she studied and worked in the financial industry. ‘Team Baby: Creating a Happy and Rested Family’, which she co-authored with Julia Dee, offers parents of new babies practical ways to develop a tranquil flow of life within the family.
Imagine if there was one, simple thing parents could do for their children that would lead to the following results: better mental and physical health, higher self-esteem, less risky behaviour, better academic performance, better communication skills and a better relationship between parent and child.
Twenty years of research has shown that this tool does, indeed, exist. It is the family meal. Dr Anne Fishel, Professor of Psychology at Harvard and co-founder of the Family Dinner Project, is an advocate for family meals and states that “so many of the things that I try to do in family therapy actually get accomplished by regular dinners.”
Here are five things we can gain from having regular meals together:
1. Improved Communication
As G.K. Chesterton said, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
Communication is the antidote to so many issues that may afflict our loved ones. Healthy communication is most effective in a relaxed, convivial setting. There are other occasions in family life that meet this requirement, but none that tops the family meal.
Here, the family members get to know one another better and, interestingly, they get to know themselves better.
Effective communication lies in allowing each person to express their own ideas and feelings without fear of being criticized or judged. Effective communication starts with effective listening. Truly listening!
Parents want to find ways of communicating that suit what each person needs and to bring the family emotionally together during the meal. Periodic conversations between the spouses are a great way of coming up with ideas of how to make some regular meals possible, to identify areas of difficulty or needed growth, to set goals and to even come up with conversation starters.
2. Courageous Creativity
Making regular occasions for the whole family to gather, is a real art. But the science backs up that if only one parent is present, the whole family will reap the benefits of meal time. Lunch, breakfast or snacks can be highlighted as opportunities to eat together. What matters is finding creative ways of sitting at the table.
While navigating conflicting schedules is one part of the struggle, knowing how to inspire cheerfulness and a sense of togetherness is key to success. Choose simple recipes, use ready-to-eat products, double on bulk meals for hearty leftovers, and get family members involved. A toddler can wash veggies, a preschooler can dress a salad, a young child can mash potatoes, a teenager can make pasta! An inexperienced cook can alway set a beautiful table.
What is needed, however, is not perfection, but effort. Start with one meal a week, if necessary, and most likely the meal frequency will increase from there. Be courageous with your creativity, even if it’s take-out; it can be an occasion of great delight for the family.
3. Strengthening Identity through Connection
Family meals are informal, often lively, full of antics and spontaneity. The Family Dinner Project has lists of conversation starters and mealtime games. Stories about our family members– immigrating, falling in love, overcoming adversity, childhood memories, funny real-life stories… All these connect us to something bigger!
The family meal can be a place of setting rituals and traditions that create meaning. For example, creating a gratitude journal in which one person writes down something for which each family member is grateful. Current events, jokes, upcoming family outings, the high and low of our day are all topics that develop our family story, and in turn, our personal story. Engaging all family members in conversation and service can enhance a sense of belonging that is key to self-esteem.
4. Managing Conflict
Conflict is inevitable in any size family. Irene Freundorfer, at 10kid.com, suggests going easy on teaching manners. Rather than speaking, she uses hand signals to remind the children to eat with their mouths closed, keep their legs down and elbows off the table. Avoid contentious topics. Use humour to change the mood. Play some music and light some candles once in a while. Compile a list of the family’s favourite foods to cut down on the complaining. Good food does help!
As far as those little ones who keep getting up from the table, don’t worry. Even a short meal together is still a meal together. Just being together, eating and talking together for a short time puts you on the path to a happier, healthier family.
5. Instilling Cooperation
Children helping with the family meals is another way of getting them to be invested in the meal ritual. Have a child plan and make a meal with a parent one night. A weekly rotating schedule is an idea. Discuss meal plans with the children. They often come up with good suggestions.
Special occasions help cement the family bond. The usual are important – Christmas, birthdays – but also those other ones that arise — someone got their driver’s license after three tries, special anniversaries in the family, weekly Sunday dinners. On these occasions, the special plates can be brought out and a little extra decoration added to the table. One of the kids can learn napkin folding, make a dessert or appetizer.
Having guests over for dinner occasionally can help the children be better behaved and to interact in new ways. This may be especially good for the teens as they pull away a bit and are in need of other, external good influences.
In conclusion, food is not just about what we eat, but how we eat it. We can feel a great sense of comfort in laughing and conversing together, even if we are just eating canned soup and store-bought bread.
There you have it! The five key benefits of eating together as a family!
It’s never too late to make family meals a priority. Maybe that next snack is one you can all enjoy together as a family, cozying up by the fire, and start the conversation. Dear family, how can we eat more meals together this year? Dear family, how can we make dinner more memorable and enjoyable for everyone?…
Don’t forget to reach out to a registered dietitian if you just can’t get started! We are here for you!
Looking for more advice and ideas when it comes to family feeding and meal planning? Book an appointment with one of our team members who specialize in family nutrition!
Let our meal planning dietitian support you with a customized plan that makes sense for your family situation, food preferences, and schedule.
You don’t need to plan complicated meal plans for weeks at a time or spend all day Sunday prepping for the week ahead. If you are like many of our clients who are not great at planning and need super simple systems for shopping, cooking, and meal ideas, we’ve got you covered.
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Daniela O’Brien is known for her contagious smile, warm approachability and collaborative approach to nutrition counselling for individuals and families. Her non-judgemental, calm demeaner mixed with confidence and clear direction is especially helpful when families are struggling with meal planning challenges, picky eating, health issues and complex eating disorders. Daniela specializes in Disordered Eating, Emotional Eating, Weight Concerns, Pre/Post-natal, Infant/Kids/Family Nutrition and offers services in both English and Spanish.