Author: Alison Johnson
Many parents have witnessed, or at least heard about, the many benefits of sitting down together for dinner as a family. Multiple studies have shown that kids who regularly eat with their families tend to be better students, more likely to stay at a healthy weight and less likely to suffer from depression or engage in unhealthy behaviors such as abusing drugs, cigarettes or alcohol. They also learn invaluable lessons about manners, listening, problem-solving, responsibility and family traditions.
But where's the time?
These days, sports practices, games, recitals and other after-school activities might start at 5 p.m. and not end until after 8. A parent might not get home from work until a point when a child is past starving. Another parent might work the night shift.
There's an argument to be made that we're all too busy, but once we are all too busy -- and if a child really wants to participate in an activity, that can happen quickly -- what can we do about family dinner?
The answer, more families are finding, is to take the focus off the word "dinner" and create a time when everyone is more likely to be home and ready to come together. Maybe it's breakfast or, in the summer, lunch. Maybe it's a late-afternoon snack before practice. Maybe it's dessert or a light snack after practice.
"If the kids could not make dinner because of sports or other activities, the evening snack was a time we all tried to gather in the kitchen, even if we just hung out around the island to have a bowl of ice cream or snack," says Sam Fabian, a parent educator at Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters and mother of three kids, the oldest two in college. "Parents have the power to draw back the reins of life and 'set the table' for building a solid family unit that will have great benefits in the future."
Other tips for making family dinner -- or family anything -- easier to pull off, from local families and the national grassroots movement The Family Dinner Project:
Keep it simple. The food doesn't have to be elaborate. Everyone can sit around eating apples and cheese sticks as long as they're talking to each other. And while well-balanced meals are always ideal, it's OK to order some takeout if it just doesn't work out to cook. A crock pot also is a great investment for easy cooking.
Set a realistic goal. You don't have to come together every day, although more is always better. At the start of each week, you could look at the family schedule and pick out the times when everyone will have free time. Write those into the calendar.
Lessen interruptions. Turn off phones and other electronics for however long you're together, even if it's just 15 or 30 minutes.
Make mealtimes enjoyable. Family gatherings shouldn't be something kids "have" to do. While serious conversation topics might come up, it's fine to talk about fun stuff too, whether it's sharing the best parts of everyone's day, telling jokes or discussing a favorite sports team. Let kids help pick out and prepare some of the foods to serve. Invite one of their best friends to join you on occasion. Play soothing music that everyone likes (let your kids share their non-soothing music with you!). Teach table manners, but don't spend the whole time picking apart their behavior. And make sure your kids know you are together because you want to spend time with them. Even eye-rolling teenagers will feel happy about that.
Come up with question lists. If conversation stalls, you'll have somewhere to go. Most kids love hearing stories about their parents' pasts, for example, such as how they met, memorable school experiences or first jobs. Younger children like what-if questions such as "If you were an animal, what would you be?" or "If you could eat with anyone from history, who would it be, and what would you cook for him or her?"