by Heather Allmendinger
Now that families have packed away their swimsuits, goggles, enormous flamingo pool floats and leisurely slow-paced summer schedules for the reluctant welcome of a new school year, you might hear a sound. It’s the low-pitched grumbling, the toaster oven popping, dishes clinking into the sink and books thudding into backpacks each morning as kids burst out the door like racehorses. The attempt to flawlessly conquer extended afterschool schedules can make a home seem more like Grand Central Terminal — merely a chaotic pass-through — for, of course, our often arduous, pint-sized passengers.
With a calendar full of homework, social gatherings and sporting events, a month or even a full semester may go by before we take a breath. When obligations smother out the fun of childhood and relentless attention is spent on the “what’s next,” family priorities gradually shift. Rifts may not be felt until your family fuel tank is on empty. Without replenishing quality time and real conversation, a family is bound to suffer a breakdown somewhere along the way — whether in a marriage, in a relationship with a child or in a child’s path to success. Parents have the ability, privilege and responsibility of steering, setting the pace and maintaining a healthy course for their family and for the individuals within it. Neglecting to implement quality time together as a family may earn your family a one-way ticket to Dysfunction Town. Instead, just add dinner. Incorporating a designated time for all family members to share a meal can keep a household going strong.
The power of eating together is often underestimated as a means of growing together. Erin Y. Weber, LCSW, at ACCESS Evaluation and Resource Center, advises, “If you want your teenager to consider you as approachable and open, then start modeling that for them when they are young. If you want them to talk to you during times of trouble, then also talk to them when all is well. The dinner table is an ideal place to relationship build.”
Preparation for a seated meal may sound daunting. However, there are many benefits to go around. Not only are your family members more likely to consume a healthier meal than what they might otherwise on the go, but gathering for dinner multiple times during the week also provides immense academic, social, behavioral, emotional and relational benefits to your children. A National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health examined the correlation between various teen behavioral outcomes and parental engagement by regularly eating dinner with their teen. The results demonstrate that teens with this parental involvement are more likely to maximize opportunities, accomplish educational goals and avoid dangerous behaviors.
So, how do you make this family mealtime magic happen?
Have a number in mind that you’d like to achieve each week. At the beginning of the school year, align extra-curricular activities to allow open evenings for all family members. If you have multiple children with multiple activities, this may seem impossible. Consider limiting the number of activities for each child per semester. “As parents, we need to recognize that the ability to limit choices is an important life skill,” says Kim Newton, LPE-I and Director of ACCESS Evaluation and Resource Center. “Being involved in numerous activities at once doesn’t transfer into adulthood for various reasons, such as finances and work schedules. Let your child choose one or two activities that he or she loves and enjoys putting time and energy into instead of overextending them (and your family) with activities they dislike.”
If you are not able to reserve the same nights regularly, then choose meal nights week-to-week. Once you make a plan, hold your ground. Start times may vary, but the plan should remain unless a unique circumstance arises — one that benefits the family as a whole more than the dinner itself.
To mitigate sudden tableside meltdowns, set expectations for everyone involved which includes assigning individual responsibilities before, during and after dinner to what is accepted and not accepted at the dinner table. No family time is quality time when electronic devices are present. A 2018 study by Pew Research Center reveals that 95 percent of teens (ages 13-17) surveyed confirmed they have a smartphone or have easy access to one. Of that group, 45 percent say they access their mobile devices “almost constantly” throughout the day. If time restraints are not strictly enforced, kids will progressively limit face-to-face connectivity with their parents. A Digital Trends study by Influence Central reported that 31 percent of parents confessed that they frequently receive a text from their children while in the same home. The incessant need to access electronics by one or more dinner participants physically and mentally places the device as a priority over others at the table which, if allowed, creates acceptance for disrespect and a lack of support for one another. If these disrespectful actions are allowed in your home, your children will not think twice about disrespectfully indulging in their device while at dinner in a friend’s home.
Make it Memorable
Family meals should not be defined by the food on plates, but instead by the memories made while cooking and consuming it. Involve the kids in planning the meal or explore new foods together. Let them be creative with a menu item and welcome their ideas, no matter how wacky they might be. Who knows, the item may end up as a mainstay or ignite interest in crafting the next best recipe. Cut down on the preparation and complexity of meals to make time for more conversation. Mix up the dialogue palette at each sitting by welcoming questions from the kids, teaching an occasional song and sharing childhood memories or interesting family history. Newton and Weber recommend having younger children decorate a box for stashing topic cards. For families with teens, they suggest purchasing a ready-made conversation starter kit, like Teen Talk in a Jar by Free Spirit Publishing. Most importantly, keep the conversation positive and supportive, but do not limit it to subjects evoking pure bliss. It is important for children to know that they can openly discuss a vast range of themes that dig deeper into our well of emotions. Steer clear of harsh scolding, disparaging responses to a child’s imagination or ideas or arguing.
For a child, having a regular seat at the dinner table lessens stress, develops stronger communication skills and creates a secure sense of place. Grab your conductor hat, slow the train and adjust the route before your family fuel tank hits empty. Making dinner a priority now will earn you a one-way ticket to a healthier and happier future together. When the magic of your family mealtimes trickles down to the next generation, chances are you’ll have a seat at their table.