The meaning of mealtime

Dan Franch on why eating together is about so much more than food.

If you have kids, life is busy. If both you and your spouse have jobs, life is busier. If you are a single parent with a job, life is well… busiest.

Add to that lengthening commutes, further demands outside the home, plus increased distractions brought on by technology, and it is easy to see how the amount of time a family spends eating meals together is slowly eroding.

That’s trouble for kids. From cooking to eating to cleaning up, family meals are one of the surest ways help kids safely navigate their childhood and adolescence eventually emerging into healthy, well-adjusted adults.

Mealtime = quality time

Acceptance and belonging are part of a stable environment. Both can be established by eating meals as a family. Conversation and communication during mealtimes creates a closer bond and connection within a family. When everyone is taking part in a meal together children sense that they are part of something strong and stable. This gives them the confidence to practice communication skills such as sharing and listening. They feel cared for as parents inquire about their lives and experiences. It is not the time for parents or children to hold court. Rather, it’s the moment when everyone can participate with openness and curiosity in a safe environment.

Mind you, mealtime conversations do not have to be always warm and cuddly. The time can be used to hash out concerns, questions and difficulties, too. It is a chance to help children broaden their perspective, vocabulary, discussion skills, and understanding of themselves and the others.

That understanding may not make children academically smarter, however eating family meals together will provide skills and stability necessary to perform better at school. Family mealtimes will also positively influence emotional and social intelligence; both of which will help kids develop confidence and a healthy self-esteem. That lays a solid foundation for future success.

Adding to that, children raised in a setting where meals are eaten with their family are more likely to follow the rules and expectations that their parents set for them. That is because mealtimes as a family (however that is defined) create a sense of belonging and being heard.

Teens at the table

The message is that being together matters. This is regardless of whether or not they are raised in a one parent or two parent family. In other words, eating meals together overrides family dynamics.

This mutual appreciation and respect increases in importance during the teen years. Teens are becoming more independent yet still need to feel the safety and connection that family meals provide. Think of it as a ritualistic buoy that is anchored starting in childhood. It is consistent and reliable. Teens feel safe in such a surrounding, thereby reducing the likelihood that they will engage in high risk behaviors such as drugs or alcohol.

The healthier choice in every way

An additional benefit for children by eating meals together as a family is nutrition. Chances are that if families are eating meals together they are mostly cooking at home, and there is no denying that home cooked meals are more often than not healthier than food bought in packages or from restaurants.

Further, by cooking at home you are teaching kids the value of eating well. They also learn the process of preparing a meal either by watching or taking part in making it. They get a clearer understanding of what goes into the food they are eating. Parents can discuss the method and reasoning for the cooking process.

Lastly, children can more easily be introduced to a wider variety of food choices by eating at home. Chances are, the amount of junk food being consumed will be reduced, thereby increasing the amount of healthy food eaten.

Life is in constant flux, particularly for children as they grow up, develop, and mature. There are few aspects of the day that can be considered predictable. Family mealtimes are one of them. True, finding time to eat together is challenging. Time. Energy. Conflicting schedules. There are plenty of reasons of why they can’t be shared so often.

However, instead of chastising yourself and your family for the times you aren’t eating meals together, take notice and appreciate the times you are. That will be a much better way to encourage eating together more often.

By Dan Franch, November 2014. Dan is also a columnist and cartoonist for wort.lu/eng.

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