Make no mistake, there are wonderful and valid reasons to strive to have family meals as often as possible. Extensive research has shown that engaging in family meals is linked to fewer depressive episodes, greater academic achievement, more positive family interactions, and connectedness and greater instances of healthy and balanced eating.
Despite all that, more recent research coming out of Cornell University suggests that separating out mediating factors such as frequency of meals, how many adults are present, and whether or not there are distractions around (such as TV) can make a difference in these outcomes. This research also finds that the benefits inculcated in childhood sometimes do not remain into adulthood. The study also looked at the actual qualities that make up the benefits of the family meal and found that family cohesiveness, empathy, communication skills, and overall family attitude were most salient to those outcomes.
I’m thankful that on more days than not, my family is able to eat dinner together. We really love coming together at that time to reconnect after a long day, talk about the highs and lows, and engage with one another in an authentic, unfettered way.
I recognize, however, that the concept of a family meal causes consternation for many moms because they feel it’s something they NEED to do for their family’s well-being, but due to swim practice, homework, two working parents, and chaotic schedules, it often just isn’t able to happen. I’m growing weary of the myriad ways certain parental dogmas force our families into a cookie cutter way of relating and being, even when it doesn’t make sense for that family. This leads to both inner and outside judgement, guilt, and overwhelm that no parent should have to endure. Parenting is hard enough.
Let’s look beyond the family meal to help enact those qualities that the research suggests make the biggest difference — cohesiveness, communication, and empathy within the family unit. And guess what? There are many ways to achieve this outside of a regular family meal. Let me take that burden and guilt away from you and suggest other things that might make sense for your unique family dynamics. Here are five suggestions — and please add your own ideas and comments below!
1. Family meeting
Setting aside one meeting a week, or even a month, can be an effective way to discuss family values, work on cooperation and communication, and set expectations and boundaries for children, all in the name of helping with self-esteem and trust.
2. Family hike
We love hiking together. Hiking is more than just collective physical activity. It allows the family to be in nature together, make decisions about directions, learn survival skills, sing songs, create memories, and even work cohesively to, for instance, help each other scramble over a difficult rock or find a clever way to cross a stream.
3. Family snack
Don’t have time for a family meal? What about a family snack? The same values and benefits afforded to children during the family meal can be achieved with a sit-down snack on a Sunday afternoon, for instance. Yes, it’s shorter and less formal, but it achieves the tenets discussed earlier and may be easier to achieve than a regular family meal. It also provides a chance to talk to kids about good nutrition, trusting their bodies and hunger cues, and learning about what fuels their bodies to make them thrive.
4. Family clean-up day
This can also be family project day — my husband often enlists my kids to help shovel the driveway, set up an IKEA desk, or fix the dishwasher. We all contribute and problem solve while working together to accomplish something — and then we relish in our successes with mugs of hot chocolate and high fives.
5. Family game night
Talk about conflict resolution! The family game night is another great way to bond as a family. When we play Pictionary, we team up to show the kids what good sportsmanship, healthy competitiveness, and playfulness look like. In those couple of hours we can have teachable moments like how to be a good loser (or winner) while using creativity and good communication skills.
We can all agree that striving for a family meal is beneficial. But are you ready to shed the guilt and look beyond the family meal to see how a family can bond and create long-term positive outcomes with self-esteem, nutrition, empathy, industriousness, and self-efficacy? Give it a try!