I love family dinner. Don’t you?
You know how it feels right? Having dinner with your smiling, polite kids, eating their vegetables, cleaning their plates and telling you what an amazing cook you are? Me neither, lol.
But I know how it feels to sit down with my family for home cooked meals.
I wouldn’t say it’s always easy but lately it’s occurred to me that for some of you it’s a real hurdle.
I totally get it. Life is busy, kids are picky, cooking takes time and attention. Serving meals isn’t always a super rewarding experience externally …every once in a while they get excited about what I make but most of the time one likes it, one hates it and one is indifferent.
But we do it anyways. I cook and make healthy, balanced meals the best I can and we eat as a family most every night. The reward for me is internal. Especially when I know the important benefits of sitting down for family meals.
My niece, Caylee, who’s 13, came for a visit this summer. We did some fun things while she was here for 10 days. On the way to the airport I asked her what her favorite part of the visit was.
Now I never could have guessed in a million years her response.
She got a big smile on her face and said ‘I had so much fun here! It’s hard to choose but I think the best part was sitting down to dinner every night. I love that. And we don’t do that at home very much.’
Wow, I was blown away.
Then a week later my oldest daughter’s best friend joined us for dinner. She said that she loved coming over and sitting down for family meals. It was one of her favorite things.
Do you hear a recurring theme?
I began to realize that what seems common to my family isn’t common to every family. Furthermore I had a memory of a conversation with a frazzled mom way back when. Her story of running kids here and there; having to go through the Chik Fil A drive thru, eating dinner in the car because there just wasn’t anytime to cook or even sit down for a meal with all the kids activities.
Simply put, I realize what is nearly autopilot for me, in contrast is a hurdle for others.
Growing up we had dinner at 5:15pm every night. It was not an option to be late for dinner. From age 12 I often had ‘start dinner’ on my chore list when I got off the bus from school. Take the clothes off the line, clean the bathroom, start dinner & set the table were standard chores. My mom was so clever, She usually had meat defrosted with basic instructions for me to follow.
Years ago, all 3 kids were younger and had practices 4 nights a week at varying times with different days off. It was CRAZY challenging for all of us to sit down for a meal some nights. So sometimes I would feed them pre-made quiche or a sandwich or pizza. Sometimes happens.
What I want to encourage here is the habit of sitting down for a family meal.
If you’re in the 30% of Americans in the habit then this is your high five. If you need encouragement to build the habit here it is. In our family it’s a habit that gets interrupted sometimes but you can get back on track. Some nights it’s dinner time and I’m running around the kitchen scrambling to throw something together; some nights it’s a ‘Whoops, Sam can you go grab pizza, I’ll make a salad’. It all works.
According to Anne Fishel, of Harvard Graduate School of Education
There have been more than 20 years of dozens of studies that document that family dinners are great for the body, the physical health, the brains and academic performance, and the spirit or the mental health, and in terms nutrition, cardiovascular health is better in teens, there’s lower fat and sugar and salt in home cooked meals even if you don’t try that hard, there’s more fruit, and fiber, and vegetables, and protein in home cooked meals, and lower calories.
Kids who grow up having family dinners, when they’re on their own tend to eat more healthily and to have lower rates of obesity.
Furthermore the mental health benefits of having family dinner are just incredible. Regular family dinners are associated with lower rates of depression, and anxiety, and substance abuse, and eating disorders, and tobacco use, and early teenage pregnancy, and higher rates of resilience and higher self esteem.
So let’s all make an effort to sit down more with our families at meal time. If weeknight dinners are too tough, start with one meal a week, Saturday or Sunday. Dinner is too tough? Start with weekend breakfast or brunch. It’s doable. Just make the decision to do it. Put another way, we are not doers, we are deciders.
5 tips for helping you get family dinner on the table and kids in their seats
#1. Meal plan.
Yes, you’ve heard this before but here’s my hack. I make a HUGE meal on Sunday and roughly sketch out 2 more meals from the leftovers. For example, chicken on Sunday with roasted carrots & potatoes and salad. I strip that bird after dinner, throw the carcass back in the slow cooker with the veggies it cooked in, cover it with water and put it on low overnight. You’re half way to homemade chicken soup the next night or 3 nights later. I have a blog on how to get 3-4 meals from 1 chicken, check it out! The rest of the chicken goes in the fridge for another night’s meal.
Here’s another ‘meal plan’ hack I do. I go into the freezer on Sunday and go shopping. I think about how many meals we’ll sit down together for and in my head I say ‘steak for Tuesday, salmon for Friday, oh there’s some tomato sauce from last year I gotta use up-pasta tomorrow!’
#2. Be flexible with meal time but adamant about sitting down together as much as possible.
Sit down for a meal with as many as are home. The truth is our nightly dinner time is 6:30. My advice would be to have a set dinner time for your household that way everyone is aware that’s when dinner happens every night. While I know the kids all have sports practice, dance rehearsal, riding lessons, etc; it’s helpful to have that routine in place. Some nights it’s just 2 of us. Sometimes we’re 4, 6 or 7. When my kids were younger we might have dinner at 4:30pm before the on slaught of sports practices or at 8pm after 2 out of 3 finished practice. Even when my son wouldn’t get home until 9:15pm from football, the other 3 of us would have dinner and he would have a plate made waiting for him, most of the time. As my kids are growing older and more independent (2 of 3 drive on their own already!), it’s very nice to have that known time in everyone’s day to sit down together and enjoy a home meal.
#3. Make it a family affair.
Have assigned days for who sets the table, helps with dinner and cleans up. My oldest daughter plans, prepares and cleans up on Mondays. That is our night to share a meal with Elizabeth, our intern who lives with us, and she helps cook and clean up too. My youngest daughter cleans up on Tuesdays and sets the table the other nights. My son, Henry, loves to clean up. Yes, you read that correctly. We are all very blessed with Henry’s enthusiasm for a clean kitchen!
#4. Keep healthy options stocked and prepped in your fridge, pantry and freezer.
Now I live on a farm so eggs and produce are abundant. But they aren’t necessarily clean and ready to go. In addition to making a big meal on Sunday I will also go ‘shopping’ and prep some veggies for the week. Prep means to me peeling and chopping onions, peppers, potatoes, celery, carrots etc and having them ready to sauté or roast. So if you shop at the farmer’s market or are in a CSA this means cleaning and chopping your produce as soon as you have a plan for how and when to use it. No procrastinating! Having a plan for the healthy food in your fridge reduces waste and makes easy work of weeknight meals.
#5 Keep calm and carry on!
Tell yourself you can. Not you can’t. Don’t buy into limiting beliefs that there isn’t enough time or nobody cares anyways… Rearrange, rethink. What’s more important than your family? Yes there is a cost involved. A time and attention cost. Maybe a few hits to the ego if someone balks at the meal you made. I’m certain the cost to not do it is greater. And research shows (my own included) sitting down for family dinner is priceless.