A couple of weeks ago, I sat the kids down for lunch and walked to the other side of the kitchen to empty and load the dishwasher. As I started to unload the clean dishes, I heard Bensen say, "So Emmy, how is your day?" I couldn't help but smile, and I may or may not have teared up a little bit. Since then I've noticed that it's become a consistent thing when the two of them are at the table together. There was one meal when I'd set something on the middle of the table and Bensen asked nobody in particular to "please move that thing so I can see my sister!" As soon as I'd moved it out of the way, their usual conversation resumed. Emmy has even started to take the lead and ask Bensen questions. These are the moments when I'm grateful that we've made family mealtime a priority.
The Importance of Family Mealtime
Family mealtime hasn't always been easy for us to make happen. It seemed easier when it was just the two of us, even though our schedules were so opposite, because we could adjust our mealtime to match up with when we'd both be home. Kids make everything more challenging, because they need that routine and aren't going to be ok with waiting even 15 more minutes for everyone to be home. In an ideal world, we'd sit down at the kitchen table together for three meals a day, but we all know that's a perfect world scenario and not realistic for most families, including ours. Each stage of life will bring new obstacles for our family dinners, but I know that by making it a priority now, we'll have an easier time making it a priority later when it becomes harder and harder to do.
Research has shown that when kids eat dinner with their family, school performance, literacy, family wellness and overall health improve. The studies have also shown that regular family dinners lead to a decrease in substance abuse, bullying, family divorce and obesity. Everyone has to eat, and food is usually at the center of any social get together. Turn mealtime into a social event in your home on a regular basis and you'll find that your connections deepen and your kids will make that time with you a priority, no matter how old they get.
Our goal is to enjoy a meal together as an entire family at least five times a week. Some weeks that's five dinners, other weeks we throw in a lunch or two or even weekend breakfast. Our meal times vary depending on the day and what we have going on, but you can usually count on dinner starting sometime around 6:00pm every night. If Joe is still at work, I'll call to find out what his ETA is, and a lot of times we'll start eating without him, knowing that he'll join us as soon as he gets home.
We've set boundaries for our family mealtimes, boundaries that help increase our connection and ensure that we're all fully present and making that time together quality. Our biggest boundary deals with technology because it seeps into our lives more and more every day and I'm sure it will only become more apart of who we are as a people in future years. I remember when we were growing up, if the phone rang during dinner, we'd let it ring. Most people don't have house phones now, but they can turn their cell phones on silent, leave them in the other room or simply ignore them when they ring. I've seen families who have a cell phone stack in the middle of the table and the first person to grab their phone off the stack has to do the dishes and I love that! The same boundary can apply to answering the door if someone knocks, unless you know that you're planning on someone dropping by.
Boundaries are specific to your family and the things that are making family mealtime a struggle. Maybe it's putting one meal a week on the calendar and communicating that every member of the family is expected to be there. If you're having trouble getting everyone to the table, make a game out of it, maybe setting the parameters to be that the first person to the table gets to pick the next night's dinner or gets an extra serving of dessert after dinner. As our kids get older, we'll add more boundaries and come up with creative ways to make them stick.
One thing I've noticed since I've been home more is that I can get a lot done in the living spaces of the house when both kids are buckled into their booster seats, enjoying food and giggling with each other. It's the best time to empty and load the dishwasher and I can do a quick pick up of toys and clutter downstairs or fold towels and laundry on the kitchen counter. I've decided that it's ok if I'm not sitting at the table with my kids for every meal, especially since they can draw a meal out for more than an hour sometimes. I make a point to turn on fun music and be in the kitchen or the next room for the entire meal. I dance, laugh, and talk with them while they eat and one or two times a week, I make it a priority to sit down at the table and spend the entire meal eating with them. But I also love the opportunity that those meals give them to have time with each other and I hope that they continue talk and laugh together like that for the rest of their lives.
As your family grows and the different activities that each member is involved with infringe on precious mealtime hours, you'll have to get creative! For some families that might mean packing a picnic lunch and eating it while you cheer on a family member at their sports event each week. Other families might start a tradition of going out for ice cream as a group after musical performances (band/choir concerts, piano recitals, etc.) when rehearsals or check-in time before the show get in the way of your regular dinners. Even on nights when Joe and I plan to have dinner together for date night after the kids are in bed, we'll sit down for dinner with them and take advantage of that quality time that we have together as a family.
The memories that we've made and the things that our kids have learned, all because of mealtime, are priceless. I couldn't stop laughing when Bensen came up to me the other night and said, "Mom, I'm hungry right now, but I'm not angry yet." I took that as my cue to get dinner on the table ASAP. The second the kids are in their chairs, they fold their arms and both say a prayer. It's my second cue to get moving because the toddlers don't want to wait much longer to get food in their bellies. Joe sat down to help Bensen finish his dinner one night before bed, and it was just the two of them at the table. He told me later that Bensen has started up the conversation, asking Joe about work and naming people by name.
It doesn't matter how young or old your kids are, or even if they're all living under your roof. Make family mealtime a priority as often as you can and you'll reap the benefits.
What mealtime traditions do you have in your home?
Photography by Sadie Banks Photography