SummaryThey may be hard to schedule but Cheryl Hernandez explains why the family dinner is important, including healthier families and happier, less-stressed kids.
Have you ever wondered what happened to the family dinner?
You know, when everyone — mom and dad, and all the kids, are sitting down — at the same time — around the kitchen table, enjoying a meal together?
If you haven’t, perhaps it’s because you are one of the few — and I do mean few — families who make having dinner together a regular event. But the unfortunate fact is, most families today don’t.
Homeschooling families are not immune to this either. For many of us, it didn’t start out this way. When the kids were young, it was easier to get everyone to sit down at the same time.
It was easier to find the time to cook a full meal because we weren’t running the kids to ballet, soccer, or violin lessons, not to mention homeschooling five different grade levels. It was easier when Dad had a set work schedule and he was always home at 6:00. But slowly, over time, for many families, dinner became almost a free-for-all, open kitchen style, food’s-in-the-oven-on-warm kind of thing.
The intent here is not to make us feel guilty, but simply to take a look at how the family dinner is something that perhaps should be reevaluated — something that may have dropped a few notches on the family’s list of priorities, and perhaps it’s time to put it on top again. We have all heard Fr. Peyton’s quote, “The family that prays together, stays together”. I would venture to say the same goes for the family that dines together.
The following are some of the reasons we should take another look at this important aspect of family life and not let it so easily slip away.
In today’s busy families, children are involved in so many different activities. Moms and dads, as well, are working, volunteering, and simply maintaining the home. But for one hour a day, with everyone stopping what they are doing, sitting down to a shared meal, we have the wonderful opportunity to be a part of one another’s lives.
There are many things that make it a challenge to actually get to the table, let alone sit down for an hour: fussy babies, spilled milk, and dirty diapers. Many of these are out of our control, and we do our best to work through them (or live with them), but there are other distractions that we can avoid altogether.
In our family, we rarely answer the phone during dinner time, and we certainly don’t have the TV or computer on in the background. Even our adult children, when they are home, would not think to bring their phones with them to the table.
Pulling out a phone and texting would be right up there with deciding to tap dance on top of the table during the meal. This is a time to spend enjoying each other’s company, being fully present to one another, without all the distractions.
If you are just starting your family, what a blessing to begin this tradition now. Even if your kids are barely old enough to talk, you will be instilling in them, from a young age, the importance of this time together. So rather than be in a hurry to get them down after they are finished eating, encourage little ones to stay at the table with you as you converse.
Even when our babies and toddlers were in the high chair, they would sit with us the entire meal, perhaps playing with a toy or looking at a book. We liked the high chairs that attached right to the table, so they could be right there with us. An added bonus here is if they are used to sitting for an hour during dinner, then sitting for an hour for Sunday Mass is a breeze — truly!
The family dinner invites conversation, laughter, and sharing. If you fast forward a few years, your daughter might share with you and her siblings the hilarious antics of her friend during co-op biology lab, or your son might chronicle details of his plans to backpack through the Rockies.
These snippets of their lives might otherwise pass you by in the hustle and bustle of family activity. And when they grow up and leave for college, they will come home and look forward to sitting around the kitchen table again, this time often for hours, talking and sharing stories with their family.
Deep bonds are formed between family members around the dinner table — bonds that will last a lifetime.
I have great memories of sitting around the dinner table as a child and asking my dad what was going on in the world. He would happily embark on a mini “lecture” of politics, history, or scientific advancements. A very learned man, he loved to share his knowledge and love for learning with his children, and we were eager to listen.
Growing up in a world before Google, this is how I learned about many things. I grew up sure that my dad was the smartest man in the world.
I also remember how my mom would prepare home-cooked meals every night, and make us wait until our father came home from work to eat dinner together. Some nights our tummies would loudly complain, but she stuck to it. This showed us the respect she had for her husband, the head of the family.
In our family now, because dining together is so important to us, the time we eat is often dependent on what is going on in the evening. Rather than let baseball practice or piano lessons (or whatever else) take away our time together, we try to work around the various activities. Sometimes we eat as early as 5:00, some nights we eat as late as 7:00, but our goal is to eat together.
And yes, this takes some planning — knowing early in the day when we will eat, what we will eat, and when it will be prepared.
Learning Manners and the Art of Conversation
Basic table manners, such as not speaking with one’s mouth full, keeping one’s elbows off the table, using the proper silverware, and asking politely for something to be passed to you, are things that take regular practice. The family dinner is the ideal setting in which to learn.
The dinner hour also provides a wonderful opportunity to teach our children how to converse. Not dominating the conversation, including all present in the discussion, and refraining from arguing, heated debating or gossip, are basic conversation etiquette that needs to be taught and practiced.
Teaching our children to discern whether or not the conversation is of a meaningful (high quality) nature is also important. Sometimes, when the conversation is turning in a more superficial direction (for example, going on and on about the latest superhero movie), my husband and I will “re-direct” it to something else. Sometimes, I will just say, “It’s time to elevate the conversation” and change the topic altogether.
We try to keep dinner a time of joyful conversing, not a time to lecture about keeping the bathroom tidy, or talk about the difficulties in the Church. Not that these topics are unimportant, but we try to discern whether they could be discussed at a later time, and keep dinner table topics to more of a positive, lighter nature.
For instance, my husband loves to tell stories of his family growing up in Puerto Rico, giving our children an appreciation of their heritage. Or when my son was younger, he would keep us in stitches of “behind the scenes” stories from some of the activities in which he was involved. To this day, at 22, he still loves to tell a good story during dinner time, and we still love to listen.
Growing in Virtue
In addition to learning proper manners, the family dinner hour provides many opportunities to grow in virtues, such as….
- orderliness / diligence — helping to prepare the meal, set the table and clean up after;
- obedience — coming when told to sit down and staying seated during the entire meal;
- self-restraint / temperance — thinking before speaking, eating slowly and not overeating;
- humility — knowing when it’s time to let someone else talk and our turn to listen;
- overcoming — eating what is served with a good attitude (or at least trying a few bites), even if it’s not our favorite food.
The family dinner hour is ripe with opportunity to grow in virtue and the ideal setting for teaching our children the importance of good manners. If children do not have the opportunity, on a regular basis, to sit for an hour around the table with family and learn proper table manners and conversation etiquette, how can we expect them to behave when they go out to eat? Or if the family is invited to someone’s home for dinner?
The perfect place for all training of children is in the home, surrounded by those who love them and want the best for them. Parents, by providing opportunity for repeated practice and through their own good example, will lead children to form lifelong virtuous habits.
Giving Thanks to God
Finally, the family dinner hour provides a wonderful opportunity to give thanks to God, our Creator, for all the bountiful blessings He has bestowed on us. Many families take this opportunity to pray also for the Holy Souls in Purgatory after the meal is finished.
We have a tradition in our family, at the beginning of the meal, to ask for the intercession of all our family’s special saints. In a family of 11, with each of us having a patron saint, plus Confirmation saints, protector saints, and a few more special saints important to our family — well, let’s just say this is often an exercise in patience as my husband takes the time to pray to each one individually.
When people join us for dinner, I sometimes catch our kids looking sympathetically (or with rolled eyes) at our guest as my husband begins the “litany” of family saints. I will bet good money they will do the same thing when they are sitting around the table with their families someday… or at the very least, hold fast to their own family traditions.
There are many other reasons why the family dinner is so important. Studies have shown families who eat together are healthier, and children are less picky and more willing to explore new foods.
Academically, children do better and are less stressed when they eat with their families on a regular basis. One study shows that very young children have more developed vocabularies — just from being exposed to conversation around the dinner table.
Before you dismiss this as an impossibility for your busy family, think about starting small — with just one or two meals together. Acquiring good habits or implementing anything new in one’s life should be done with baby steps — slowly, incrementally.
If you are convinced it is something that needs to be a priority in your family, take a look at what is holding you back from implementing this on a more regular basis. Are these things higher on your list of priorities for your family?
Ask Our Lord and His Blessed Mother for help, and you can be sure that if it is good for your family, He will provide the graces to make it happen. Just remember, nothing worth doing is done without sacrifice on our part, so be prepared to make changes. The family meal will be worth it.