Thoughtful Parenting: Make family dinner a priority

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— If you commit to one thing this school year, make it the family dinner.

Having dinner as a family is easily the most important thing you can do to raise happy, healthy children. 

Studies show the more often families eat together, the less likely kids are to smoke, drink, do drugs, get depressed, develop eating disorders and consider suicide, and the more likely they are to do well in school, delay having sex, eat their vegetables, learn big words and know which fork to use. And these associations hold even after researchers control for family connectedness, meaning the benefits of family dinners go beyond having a close-knit family. 

Need more convincing? 

It goes without saying that children who have a sophisticated vocabulary always impress us. Our ability to communicate verbally is one of the most important social intelligence assets that we have. 

One study from the Harvard School of Education examined children's use of rare words that have been found to be particularly good markers of literacy. Of the 2000 words they were looking for, only 143 came from parents reading to their kids. More than 1,000 of the words were learned at the dinner table. 

This is not to say we should not read to our kids, but it does reiterate the critical role of the family dinner to foster healthy child development. 

Need more reasons?

Modeling: Kids learn to try new foods by watching their parents eat them. It takes several exposures to a food before kids acquire taste buds for it. My son loves spicy food. Why? Because his dad loves it. Model healthy eating, and your kids will become healthy eaters. Kids who don't eat with their parents tend to have a very limited diet.

Engagement: We are busy. Let's face it; in today's world, we have very little time to truly connect with the people we care about most. Family dinners provide an ideal opportunity to connect with your kids. Need help getting things going? Play Rose, Bud, Thorn. Each person around the table takes a turn describing their Rose (the best part of their day), their Thorn (the worst part of their day) and their Bud (what they are looking forward to tomorrow). Try it once, and your kids will ask for it every night.

Family rituals: A ritual illustrates our values. When we make dinner time a family ritual, it sends our kids the message that family engagement is important to us. A regular family dinner can provide a sense of comfort and security for children, it helps manage stress, and it provides structure in a chaotic world.  

Have scheduling difficulties?

Family dinners can be difficult to schedule for families with parents who have to work late or when kids get older and have lots of activities. Try to pick at least one night each week when the family dinner is sacrosanct. On that night, make it a big deal. Use the fancy plates and napkins. Plan to sit for a while. Keep the toys and phones away from the dinner table, and engage with the people you care about most. 

If you work late and your kids need to eat before you get home, have them sit with you and feed them a healthy snack before bed. The act of engagement around the table, even if everyone is not eating at the same time, creates a sense of harmony for a family on the run.

Kristen Race, Ph.D., is the founder of Mindful Life, an organization dedicated to providing mindful solutions to help families become more resilient to the stress in their lives. She has been a member of the First Impressions Executive Committee for the past five years.

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