There is so much advice when it comes to raising children. Unfortunately, most of it has limited use and doesn’t help very much. It can be very confusing, stressful, and time consuming to try and follow all the common wisdom on how to raise your child.
After a lot of research (and learning a lot from my own children), I was able to pinpoint a single activity that is correlated with huge benefits across a number of different areas. The activity – eating dinner together as often as possible.
Before I list the benefits (along with scientific proof or studies), this is what successful family therapist, published author, and Harvard professor of Psychology Anne Fishel says regarding family meal time, “As a family therapist, I often have the impulse to tell families to go home and have dinner together rather than spending an hour with me. And 20 years of research in North America, Europe and Australia back up my enthusiasm for family dinners. It turns out that sitting down for a nightly meal is great for the brain, the body and the spirit.”
Eating together has benefits that improve vocabulary, increase happiness, increase resilience, reduce risky behavior, and even help improve test scores and grades. The data suggests that at least 5 meals a week together is ideal, and if you can’t make dinner, breakfast is acceptable as long as it’s not rushed and stressful.
If you think about it, creating a stress-free environment where you can speak with your children without any constraints related to telling them what to do, where to go, or how to act is amazing and relatively rare. It’s a perfect time for everyone to talk about their day, their ups and downs, things that may be bothering them, and things they’re thankful for.
For example, reading to your children at night exposes your kids to about 150 new words a week. However, eating together throughout the week exposes them to more than 1,000 new words. Kids who have a large vocabulary have also been shown to learn how to read at an earlier age. For older kids, this correlates to higher test scores and significantly more A’s than other teenagers.
I believe some of the best benefits to eating together aren’t as easy to calculate. There are a number of studies that show a connection between eating together as a family and reduced negative behaviors. These negative behaviors for teenagers included cigarette smoking, drug use, violent behavior, eating disorders, school problems, and being sexually active. Eating a significant number of meals together each week (5 or more was the ideal amount) reduced this behavior across the board.
Another major benefit is that regular family dinners are correlated with significantly lower rates of suicidal thoughts and depression. You may be aware that depression among teenagers is among the highest it’s ever been, so this is extremely important. Kids who have been bullied at school were able to recover much more easily if they have regular meals with their family – probably because they feel loved and connected to other people outside of their school social group.
Of course, the environment has a huge impact on the results. The television should be off, and all cell phones and other screens should be face down (or better yet, in another room). More importantly, the mood you set is critical. Focusing on listening without offering advice is really important. If you can practice active listening, that’s even better. Per Wikipedia, Active listening is defined as a communication technique that is used in counseling, training, and conflict resolution. It requires that the listener fully concentrate, understand, and respond. The listener should repeat, in his own words, what he has just heard in order to confirm understanding of both parties.
I realize for myself, that one of the major reasons we don’t eat dinner together more often is the amount of work it takes to get everything ready, and then the cleanup. There is a tremendous amount of cleanup from cooking, and more clean-up after the meal is done.
However, once I realized how beneficial it is to eat together as a family, I realized that it makes sense to think outside of the box and find a way to make it happen for my loved ones. One trick I began to use on a weekly basis was to order catered food from healthy restaurants that my kids loved. For example, the Panera catering menu has a wide range of foods everyone loves, including salads, sandwiches, and various breakfast platters. The Buffalo Wild Wings menu is another terrific option for my family. I realize it may not sound like a healthy option, but they have a number of salads and sandwiches that are surprisingly healthy.
While it’s definitely not the same as cooking at home, the fact that it increases the frequency of our family meals together so much makes it worth it to me. When I order from these restaurants, I save an enormous amount of time and this leads to a stress-free happy dinner that in turn leads to some amazing conversations.
I realize that the impulse is to try and do it all, and be a super parent and be perfect. But once I let that go and started prioritizing what’s really important – quality, stress free time with my spouse and kids – it ended up making a huge difference in my life, and in the quality of relationships with my children.
Studies sited for this article: