You’ve probably heard that having dinner together as a family is a good thing for your kids, but you may not realise that it could literally be life-changing for your child, in more ways than one. It all comes down to that fact that, when it comes to your child’s safety and ultimate success in life, your love goes a long way 🥰
But why do we say that dinner, specifically, matters so much? Because families who eat together talk more, which helps them stay connected and build better relationships. It’s also because parents who show up to eat with their kids are more likely to express their love constructively in other ways, too, in the form of both attention and supervision.
In addition, families who offer kids more structure are more likely to keep kids attending to their homework as well as out of trouble. And - importantly for those of us parenting teenagers! - dinner transforms individual family members into a "group," which gives parents more clout to rival the power of the peer group. We also love family dinners because children, even more than the rest of us, need something to count on every day, the tangible security of belonging and being nurtured that is represented by the ritual of sharing food with those we love.
Why does all that matter? If your child is young it matter a LOT, because one of the most common lures used by child molesters relies on an absence of love. Known as the ‘Affection Lure’, it is used both offline and online to exploit unsuspecting youngsters in need of love and attention. Here, victims of abuse are befriended and "groomed" over a period of hours, days, weeks, months, or years. Child molesters have repeatedly admitted: When there's a physically or emotionally absent parent in the picture, it makes the child more vulnerable to grooming and abuse.
If you have an older child, such as a high school student, this love, stability and connection built at the dinner table becomes essential as they are faced with peer pressure, sex, drugs, alcohol and a whole array of dangerous decision-making and risk-filled situations…. Not to mention the tumult of adolescent emotions, overwhelm and expectation.
Research shows that dinner is the best predictor we have of how kids will do in adolescence. The more frequently kids eat dinner with their families, the better they do in school, and the less likely they are to get involved with drugs or alcohol, suffer depression, consider suicide, or become sexually active during high school.
Whatever the reason, dinner is a pretty easy insurance policy to build into your home life. If you’re too busy to have dinner as a family on a regular basis, it's worth re-examining why, given how important it is.
"What's a regular basis?"
The research shows that the more meals together, the better, meaning that two is much better than none, and four is much better than two. Obviously, it's ideal if both parents -- when they live together -- can have dinner with their kids every night. But we don't live in an ideal world, and by definition no human is an ideal parent. So we do what we can, which can often mean one parent holding down the fort at many weeknight dinners. That gives Friday, Saturday and Sunday a celebratory tone as everyone sits down to savour the meal together.
"I eat with the kids every night, but my husband can't get home till later. Does that matter?"
Sometimes that's the best a family can do during the week, and you make it work. But it becomes all the more important that the whole family have time together on the weekend. There’s something magical for building family identity when all members of a household share meals together, at least some of the time.
"What about kids' sports schedules that keep them away at dinner?"
Once a week of dinners on the run is inconsequential, but if conflicting schedules mean your family can't sit down at least a few times during the week for dinner, it's worth some creative thinking. Can the schedule be changed so that you all eat earlier or later? Can a child switch to after-school rather than evening activities? Can you all at least gather together for fruit and milk or herbal tea before bedtime so that you get some family time that evening?
"We eat together, but we eat in front of the TV. Does that count?"
Does it make you feel more connected to your family? Not as much as a conversation, I suspect, so the short answer is No. It's challenging to make dinner fun and relaxing when everyone is pressured and tired, so it can be a lot easier to turn on the TV at the end of a long day than to interact with your kids. But eating in front of a screen builds your relationship with the screen, not with each other.
"I'm so wiped out at the end of the day that I don't have the energy to make dinner into anything special."
After work and sports schedules, parental exhaustion is the single biggest obstacle to family dinners. But this should be a time for everyone in the family to recharge and reconnect, including you. The first secret is to minimise the cooking -- remember, the food is not the point. The second secret is to nurture yourself as well as your kids, not just in the evening, but throughout your day.
We lose an important opportunity to check in with our kids and and re-connect if we lose dinner, especially if we work away from them all day. Dinner seems so important to me as a foundation for family culture that I would rather think of it as a cherished family tradition, and skimp somewhere else, if I have to.
"What about date night?"
While your kids are young, you may want to sit down with them for Saturday night dinner before the babysitter arrives and you head out for an evening with your partner. Of course, if you have dinner as a family most of the other nights of the week, this won't feel necessary. And if you don't, then consider this first part of your Saturday evening "date night" with your kids and make it festive.
"As my kids have gotten older, they don't want to have dinner with us on the weekend."
Again, if you have dinner as a family most other nights, you can feel comfortable exempting Saturday night as "party night" for everyone. But if you don't, then your family needs the connection time -- even if your tweens and teens don't know that!
Naturally, as your kids get older, they'll be the ones having date night. But if you open your doors to your kids' friends for dinner, tweens and even teens often enjoy a delicious free, home-cooked dinner -- and are willing to engage in an interesting discussion, if you don't embarrass them -- before they head out to a movie or party. That may seem hard to believe, but my children’s friends have commented that they love hanging out at our house because the conversations are always so interesting. With some discussion ideas in mind and a little energy, you can create a dinner hour that will have the teens almost wishing they didn’t have to head out (we said almost, LOL.)
How can you create a dinner hour that's so nurturing that everyone in the family -- including you -- looks forward to it? Comment your ideas below!
Because family is worth it.
"Surrounded by the people who matter, gazing into the faces we love, we count our blessings and share our burdens, reliving the daily dramas of missed buses and skinned knees. We raise jelly glasses and champagne flutes, toasting accomplishments in classrooms and boardrooms. 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. Taking turns. It’s where we make up and make merry. It’s where we live, between bites." - Doris Christopher