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The Family Dinner

Today, on my Facebook feed was one of those memory reminders. It was from six years ago.

Funny things my kid says....At the dinner table, after his father and I laughed at one thing he said, without missing a beat he says, "I talk all day and that's what they laugh at." The words may be Fanboy and Chum Chum but the timing is all him.

I’m happy to say he still has that great sense of humor and timing.

That Facebook post made me think of something else I wrote six years ago, about the family dinner. So for this Throwback Thursday, here goes.

The Family Dinner

Friday, July 2, 2010

When I got married, we were a blended family. I got a bonus daughter along with a husband. I have a friend who doesn’t like the term blended family, but I don’t have a problem with it. It is rather an apropos word I think, because we had to learn to blend so many ways of doing things. For us, one of the more challenging subjects was the family dinner.

Now I must admit, in this case, when I say blend, what I really mean is I had to get my new husband and daughter to convert to my way of thinking. Many a time I ended up sitting at the dinner table by myself, because they had gobbled down their food and just got up and left me. Or in the middle of dinner one of them would get up to answer the phone. That just wasn’t how I was raised. In my house we had dinner together most nights and it was as much a family ritual as it was a routine.

Even though my father had many evening meetings with clients, he did most of the cooking and we all had dinner together prior to his going out. You did not leave the table until everyone was finished and dinner time was an opportunity to catch up with everyone, laugh, debate and communicate. Sunday dinners were an event. We usually had friends or relatives over for a big Sunday meal after church.

When we were old enough to get chores, each of us kids would do our job cleaning up the kitchen after dinner. As my father used to say, “Why do I need to buy a dishwasher? I have three.”

Whoever washed the dishes, then cleaned the stove, counters and kitchen table. Whoever dried took out the trash to the garage and swept the floor. There was a system. If you were washing, it made sense for you to wash everything down; you already had the wet cloth. If you were drying, it made sense for you to sweep the floor; you were the last one in the room and could sweep without people in your way.

It wasn’t until I visited other people’s homes or we had friends over that I realized, yet again, my family was different. I can remember one particular Sunday dinner. We were in the dining room having a wonderful meal and conversation and one of my sister’s friends from middle school was there. Without a word, when she was finished eating, she got up from the table walked out of the room, through the kitchen into the den, sat down on the couch and turned on the television. For a few seconds we all just looked at each other in silent astonishment.

I never investigated her rational for just up and leaving the dinner table, but I suspect that in her household, family dinners were not commonplace. Dinner time might have been more of a solitary event and not a time for family bonding. Maybe she was used to eating in front of the television and she was looking to get back to the familiar.

Fast forward through more years and more living experiences, I am again and again reminded of how, to many, the concept of the Family Dinner it not commonplace, but something that is relegated to Thanksgiving or one of the major religious holidays. Yet, I’m here to tell you, there is more to the family dinner than just food. If it’s been a while since you put forth the effort to make it happen for your family, now’s the time.

Take Back the Family Dinner

“It’s time to take back dinner. Put it on the front burner (pun intended) and basically stop over-scheduling your kids and start scheduling mealtimes together. We multi-taskers somehow manage to meet our work deadlines and get to our kid's baseball games on time, so why can't we actively work hard to plan our weekly meals?” says, Jeanne Muchnick, author of the new book, Dinner for Busy Moms.

Muchinick is not alone in her call to take back the family dinner. Even major brands have incorporated it into their marketing campaigns to get families together…hopefully over a serving of their product. For more than a decade there have been various calls to action by children and family advocacy groups.

The good news is, for some, there was no need to make the call. It was a part of life for Parenting and Life Coach, Barbara Desmarais. “I grew up having family dinners every night. It was the norm and when I raised my own children, it was also the norm.”

For Jessie Nagel, it was so much a part of her life that it never occurred to her that not every family ate dinner together. “You might think it crazy, but I was truly surprised to learn as an adult that many families do not eat together. I was raised in a family that ate dinner together every night, with rare exception, and also enjoyed food as the center for many forms of socialization,” says the Hype, Special Agent.

For Ms. Desmarais, coming to the realization that not every family ate dinner together was a long time coming. “When my children entered high school it was the first time I found out that what we were doing was not the norm for everyone. In fact my kids felt very inconvenienced when they had to come home for dinner at a certain time and most of their friends were just eating what was in the fridge and at no set time. It saddened me that this was now a fact of life.”

But if you have a protesting teenager, don’t let it get to you. You have to think long term. “Everyone benefits from family dinners. Even if a teenager complains, she or he benefits from a sense of belonging to the family group. As soon as children are old enough, they grow in self-esteem and character by taking on some responsibilities associated with the family dinner. Even a small child feels a sense of pride by performing as simple a task as placing a napkin at each place setting,” says Psychotherapist, Marcia Naomi Berger, LCSW.


“Research supports that families who have dinner together several times a week have less substance abuse, better body image, do better in school,” states Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Clinical Director of Wasatch Family Therapy, Julie Hanks.

So is it that families who eat together already had the benefit of strong parenting skills and higher levels of communication? Is this one for the correlation verses causation debate? I say, in part, who cares! If you are one of those families that are not having the family dinner on a regular basis…then start!

Maybe it will start positively impacting other family dynamics. Unless your family’s eating your cooking could literally be a danger to their health, only good can come from having dinner together. So order Chinese or a pizza. Become familiar with the ready to eat section of your local grocery store. Then set the table for a family meal.

Do’s and Don’ts of the Family Dinner

The family dinner table is a great time for teaching and learning, but parents still have to work at doling out those life lessons with moderation and tact. “There is so much to gain by the family dinner as long as certain ground rules are created by the family. Negotiating the ground rules and practicing them is enormously helpful in teaching children responsible behavior and in enhancing their social skills. An example would be how we make sure everyone who wants to speak is heard without interrupting another family member. In discussion, parents can teach and model the practices necessary for good communication - seek to understand before being understood, no shaming or insulting,” says Parenting Coach Dr. Richard Horowitz.

Some of the ground rules, or do’s and don’ts of the family dinner table include respecting differences and agreeing on what will and will not be discussed. “It is important that parents do not use this mealtime to either interrogate the kids: Did you pass your test? Did you behave yourself at daycare? Etc. or harangue them”, says Kathy Lynn of Parenting Today Canada.

Berger agrees. She says, “Make it a general rule for the conversation [to be] pleasant while eating. Doing so encourages healthy bonding among family members as well as good digestion. The more difficult topics and disciplinary matters can be addressed at other times. During the meal, everyone can be encouraged to share their feelings about whatever is on their mind and about how their day went.”

Raising Healthy Eaters

If you take a look at the average grade school child, you realize that we are in the midst of a childhood obesity epidemic. Even the first lady has picked up the mantle of helping our society make better choices for our children. One of those healthy choices is having more nutritious family dinners. It is at the dinner table that parents help establish a child’s relationship with food and good eating habits.

Many of us grew up being told to “clean our plates” and “not waste food”. It is at the dinner table that we either succeed or fail at helping our children learn about portion control and stopping when we are full. “At the meal table, children take important cues about healthful eating from their parents and witness what a nutritious, well-rounded meal looks like,” says Registered Dietitian, Christen Cooper. Likewise, they learn the balance between not wasting food and not encouraging over eating.

According to Nancy Piho, the author of My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything, “Eating together as a family is vitally important in starting young kids off on the right foot of being healthful, adventuresome eaters!”

Many nutritionists and pediatricians will tell you, it can take up to 10 or 11 exposures to a food before a child will decide they like it. In many a household, including mine, parents have instituted the “No Thank You Bite” rule. Basically, it means you don’t have to eat a lot of something new, but you at least have to try it. Then you can say no thank you. It took my son about four or five “no thank you bites” before he learned to love his favorite fruit…kiwi.

As children get older, the ritual of the family dinner can be expanded to include the children in the preparation. Janet Max relishes that fact that she and her teenage daughters have made dinners together an event, one where her daughters are beginning to flex their culinary skills. Her oldest, Tasha “likes to cook, so she helps prepare meals a lot, even makes some on her own. Lately both my daughters have an obsession with sautéed onions. It’s hilarious. Tasha will cook up a whole pan full and they will fight over them.”

Encouraging children to be a part of the planning and making of the meal not only helps their self-esteem, but also prepares them for a more self-sufficient future.

Family Dinner as Backdrop of Family Dynamics

Think back to what the family dinner meant in your childhood. Are they happy and positive memories? Or do they belie the image of a happy family without troubles? For so many families, the significance of the family dinner is magnified exponentially when interplayed with other family characteristics.

When Judy Woodward Bates was very young, family meals were not just about the food, it was a social event that cemented familial relationships. “My parents would always take me and my sister to a huge Sunday dinner gathering at my dad's parents’. Since I was number 34 of the 34 grandchildren and my dad was the youngest son, my grandparents were in their late 60's when I was born. Their health declined rapidly and these fun times ended by the time I was 7, but I'll never forget the organized chaos of those Sunday afternoons.

The kids were ordered to stay outside and play until the grownups had eaten and play we did! I don't think Big Mama (my grandmother) ever sat down - she was like a bustling whirlwind - running between the kitchen and dining room with mounds of fried chicken, homemade "catheads" (as my Papa called her huge fluffy biscuits) and cornbread; baked sweet potatoes; fresh field peas; sliced tomatoes and onions; and gallons of sweet tea. All that was generally followed by cutting a watermelon (and the subsequent seed-spitting contests among the grandkids) and churning homemade ice cream, with all us grandkids vying for a chance to be the one who sat on the ice cream maker while one of the men cranked it.”

For Claire DeRosa, the truth of her internal family drama that was happening around the dinner table was not clear at first glance. "I grew up in a family of six. Our household included my parents, grandmother, sister and brother. We did not have much of anything. My father ate before any of us and my mother would serve him. When he was finished we would then have our dinner. My mother never sat down with us to eat. When we were finished she would then scrape the plates into hers and then eat. My mother passed away when I was 15 years old. Now years later I realize she never sat down with us because there wasn’t enough food. As kids it never entered our mind what the true picture of this dinner drama was in reality."

My Blended Family

In my family, even after ten years, we are still in a continuous game of negotiation around the dinner table. My husband still eats faster than the rest of us. Now our son is the slow poke of the table, far surpassing my slow pace in the family. And my bonus daughter, who is now in college, seems to have the most challenge with the no phone rule. But just recently, after a few subtle and not so subtle hints, she left her cell phone in another room. And when I could hear the tell-tale pings of her text message alerts and she didn’t rush to go pick it up, I said thank you. My son asked what I was thanking her for. I simply said, “She knows”, and smiled.

Next up...teaching her how to cook.

2016 Update…. And at our house, tonight’s family dinner is spaghetti and meatballs and salad.

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