It’s no secret — regular family meals are one of the key factors in healthy child growth and development.
When family members gather around the dinner table to share a meal, the primary point isn’t to eat — it’s to prioritize time for family and develop relationships with each other.
Although the importance of family dinner may not appear obvious, this simple act of eating and conversing together can be a game-changer for young children and teenagers alike. It consistently provides children and young adults with a reliable space to communicate with their parents, while ensuring that parents have a regular time to check-in with their children in a non-stressful setting.
But why are family meals important? And how can eating dinner together as a family not only encourage better outcomes for your children but help them become charitable individuals who put the needs of others first?
Here are a few ideas to help your family grow closer together over the dinner table.
The Importance of Eating Dinner as a Family
More than wealth, geographic location, education levels, or almost any other factor — one of the largest determinants of child success is time spent around the family dinner table.
According to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse from Columbia University, children who eat meals around the family dinner table are less likely to smoke, drink, or use illicit drugs and are more likely to make better grades and have better academic performance than their peers.
When comparing families who ate together 5-7 times per week to those who ate together 2-0 times a week, the study found that children in the first category were more likely to stay away from detrimental behaviors. Here are the statistics:
- 4X less likely to smoke
- 2.5X less likely to use marijuana
- 50% less likely to drink underage
Furthermore, families who eat together frequently are 50% less likely to experience and seek treatment for depression, anxiety, and other mental problems and they are more likely to eat healthy foods, develop good eating habits, and experience fewer chronic diet-related issues.
Tips for a Successful Family Mealtime
Frequently, family mealtime is the only time during the day where all members of the family are able to come together and share about their lives. However, just because this ritual is important, doesn’t always mean it is easy.
Between jobs, sports, homework, and other obligations, getting the whole family to sit down together for dinner can be a real challenge. However, the experts agree the effort yields a high reward.
Here are just a few tips to help your family kickstart a mealtime tradition:
Prioritize What’s Important: If it’s not a priority, it’s probably not going to happen. The reality is that American families are busier than ever before and there is always something competing for our attention. Between soccer practice and online tutoring and last-minute work calls, sure — it’s easy to have everyone feed themselves when it is convenient, but this only further isolates the members of the family from each other.
If you want to make family mealtime time a pillar of your family life, then set the goal and protect it at all costs.
Set Realistic Expectations: With the goal in mind of getting the family together 5-7 nights per week for dinner, you also need to evaluate what is realistic at this moment. If your family is currently eating zero meals together per week, making the jump from zero to seven will likely end in disappointment. Instead, aim to begin with two family meals per week. After a month or two of success, double it to four nights a week.
Likewise, understand that when starting a new family ritual there are likely going to be some uncomfortable moments and learning that needs to occur. Give your family time and grace as you adjust to a new family habit.
Cooperation = Success: Part of the success of family mealtime comes when the individual members of the family “buy-in” to the process. A great way to create “buy-in” is to involve every member of the family in the meal planning and preparation. One great idea is to make a weekly meal plan over one family dinner. When children get to be involved in the meal choices, they are more likely to be excited about dinner time.
Everyone should also be involved in helping with the dinner set up and clean up. When one person does all the cooking and cleaning, the meal becomes an event the family attends, rather than an important ritual they partake in.
The Family Dinner Table: A Place to Learn Charity
Not only are there numerous physical, mental, emotional, and social benefits to eating dinner with family, but the family dinner table can also be a child’s first opportunity to learn about charity and see it modeled in front of them.
Charity, love of God and neighbor, is taught both in word and action — through sharing stories from the day, praying together for those most in need, and educating our families about how we can help those who are suffering. But, beyond prayer and sharing, there are many tangible things families can do to teach charity from the table — for example sharing their food with those in need.
From Your Family Dinner Table to a Family in Guatemala
While time shared around the family dinner table should be a joy-filled occasion, for many families in Guatemala it is a source of fear and uncertainty because their plates are frequently empty.
Before COVID-19, a great percentage of Guatemalan families struggled with food insecurity and acute poverty. In fact, the most pressing need in rural Guatemala is basic nutrition. 1 in 2 children in Guatemala will face chronic malnutrition between the ages of 0-5 and will suffer permanent, long-term physical consequences from the lack of proper nutrition.
The Bethany Center, a mission project of MercyWorks, exists to change these statistics. This ministry serves the poorest of the poor and is collectively made up of four locations, including a central urban location, the infant and maternity center, and two rural soup kitchens.
Because of COVID, families can no longer come to the soup kitchen. So, we are bringing food to them. A gift of $60 is all it takes to feed an entire family for one month. Your family can make a huge difference through monthly sponsorship. Thank you for helping us feed and restore hope to these families.