When I became a mother, there was never a question in my mind about the central place that family meals would take in our lives. I envisioned beautifully laid tables, wholesome meals, witty conversation, and well-mannered children. I’d channel Martha Stewart, Judith Butler, and Mary Poppins to serve perfect dinners with a side of perfect parenting after a nearly perfect day’s work. It was my New American Dream.
Yesterday, I forgot about the eggs boiling on the stove and exploded them all over the kitchen while desperately trying to the lull the baby to sleep during the tiny window I had between an appointment and picking Asher up from first grade. My three-year-old daughter watched in horror as smoke filled the kitchen and egg goop stuck to the ceiling. The fire alarm sounded accusingly—you should have gotten takeout—and the baby never slept.
The dream and the reality don’t always align. But the sentiment that informed my early commitment to home-cooked meals is as true as ever. Despite occasional setbacks, we continue to prioritize and enjoy sharing family meals.
A slew of statistics supports the fact that children benefit from family meals. For younger kids, having routine shared meals provides a sense of security, a feeling of belonging in the family and a learning-ground for cultural practices. According to anthropologist Robin Fox from Rutgers University, “a meal is about civilizing children, about teaching them to be a member of their culture.” Studies also reveal higher levels of academic performance among children who eat with their families more than five times per week. This is attributed in part to increased listening comprehension, vocabulary, and oral communication skills honed around the dinner table.
Not surprisingly, the frequency of family meals decreases as children go through the teenage years. But evidence suggests that the benefits of regularly shared meals are just as strong. According to Joseph A. Califano, Jr., founder of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), “parental engagement fostered around the dinner table is one of the most potent tools to help parents raise healthy, drug-free children.” In its 2011 study The Importance of Family Dinners, CASA reported that teens who have frequent family dinners (five or more per week) are four times less likely to use tobacco and two times less likely to use marijuana than those who have infrequent family dinners (fewer than three per week).
At the most basic level, sitting down to a home-cooked meal models an appreciation for food. If we are to reconnect with agricultural production in an organic and sustainable way, it’s key that the next generation holds food in a place of value. Children must conceptualize food as being nourishment—as a source of life—rather than as simply a fuel to help us get on with the rest of life. By showing this respect, we demonstrate that food is worthy of both our time and energy.
It’s clear that society will need to undergo a great paradigm shift to create that elusive goal of “sustainability.” And while eating home-cooked meals around a family table isn’t a miraculous solution to restore balance to our precious planet, it’s a step in the right direction. Creating positive associations around food, modeling respect for wholesome eating, and teaching about food production and preparation are all critical components of raising children who respect the fruits of the Earth.
Which is exactly what I was doing when I exploded organic eggs from happy hens all over my kitchen. But for every exploded egg, I have a gem of a moment to share. Like the time during dinner when my son asked out of the blue: “Mom, how do I stop war?” Or the first time my kids set the table together, working as a team to create artistry in their execution. Milestones are marked around the table—from pouring one’s own water, to celebrating the seasons through food, to honoring accomplishments in our daily gratitude practice. Around the table, we take the time to savor all the goodness that life has afforded us—on our plate and otherwise.
The challenge of enticing busy families to the table remains the greatest barrier to the family meal. Despite our best intentions, it’s easy to get caught up in soccer practice, work commitments, and piano recitals. To help ease the transition, I suggest talking in the language of love: food. Lure resistant family members to the table with irresistible culinary delights, and make this new family structure one that you all look forward to. This might mean a lot of kid-friendly favorites like grilled cheese and cut veggies, or make-your-own-pizza-night to get the ball rolling. Or it might mean bringing back dessert and offering a small treat at the end of a sit-down dinner.
To keep the conversation rolling at the table, Miriam Weinstein, author of The Surprising Power of Family Meals, suggests having a couple of conversation starters up your sleeve. Her list of suggestions includes some serious fare, but my favorites are silly questions like, “How do you think the belly button got its name?” The benefits of family time are increased exponentially when everyone is there willingly, so the pains taken to create enticing meals and stimulating conversation will come back to you tenfold.
Like most parents, I’d pay almost anything to minimize my children’s likelihood of using illegal substances, while simultaneously bolstering their academic performance, their sense of self worth, and their environmental consciousness (as well as strengthening our relationship). Sound too good to be true? Seem out of your price range? It isn’t. It doesn’t cost a thing. In the words of Elizabeth Planet, vice president of CASA, “The emotional and social benefits that come from family dinners are priceless,” and the practice itself is free.
Taking the time to eat together is one of the most meaningful gifts you can give to yourself and your children. So I humbly suggest that you start. Today.
Tovah Paglaro lives in Vancouver, Canada, and is the editor of Thrifty & Green Family. She is also the author of the Thrifty & Green original series Growing Up Green, where she writes about her family's adventures raising three kids with sustainable values and practices. Follow her on Twitter (@tovahp) and connect with her on Thrifty & Green's Facebook page.