By Salita Brown, Youth First, Inc.
Has your family enjoyed more time together, including family meals, during the pandemic? Before the worldwide health crisis, many families had seen the demands of everyday life cause a decline in traditional sit-down family dinners. Many families run from activity to activity, and it seems as though this family tradition from the past no longer seems relevant.
So, before some of us remove this ritual from our lives completely, let’s stop and discuss the true importance of family dinners.
For many years family dinners were a part of daily life in the household. These dinners represented much more than a time of sustenance. They were a time to unwind and reconnect as a family over a good meal. They took place at the family dinner table with face-to-face communication and no technology. They reminded families what was really important – EACH OTHER!
In recent years, researchers have found that family dinners promote healthy development in youth. They provide a connection to important family and cultural rituals, which can be beneficial to a youth’s mental health.
These face-to-face interactions between parents and their children facilitate communication, which in turn helps parents guide their children’s behavior. According to the website stanfordchildrens.org, youth in families that regularly engage in family meals are about half as likely to need treatment for depression, anxiety, and other emotional problems compared to their peers.
Additionally, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) reported findings for children that had frequent family dinners compared to peers that did not. Benefits for youth that had frequent family dinners included:
- less likely to smoke, drink, or use illicit drugs
- less likely to have friends who use illegal drugs
- better school performance
- less likely to report tension among family members
- greater communication among family members
Of course every family is different, and the process of gathering the whole family every night over a meal may not be possible. For these families I would recommend finding at least one day a week that can be devoted to having a family meal, and that meal does not have to be dinner. Family meals can occur over breakfast, lunch or even at a restaurant or the park during an outing to the store. Choose whatever works best for your family.
So, what if a family is not good at initiating positive communication during family dinners? For those families I would recommend creating a conversation jar. A conversation jar can include a variety of questions and topics that can be discussed during the meal. Each time you eat, have a family member select and read a question and give everyone a chance to answer.
To encourage youth to feel more buy-in for this activity, begin with easy and silly questions. As the weeks go by, add in more serious, thought-provoking questions. Just take steps to ensure the dinner never turns into a blame game and no one ever leaves feeling down and defeated.
Now you know the importance of family dinners as a positive tool for your children’s development. As we slowly return to our normal routines, let’s try to find time to continue traditional family dinners, gathering our families together and engaging in positive communication over a good meal. Bon Appétit!