Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Ideas for Family Dinner Time

"8 reasons to make time for family dinner"
Many experts agree that eating together as a family is vastly important for family communication and well-being. Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood cites many studies that refer to the immense advantages of having family meal-times:

* Family meals ensure healthier eating, especially when they are screen-free.
* Family meals are linked to healthier behavior and closer child-parent bonds, particularly among adolescents.
* Family meals decrease the risk of teenage substance abuse and other anti-social behaviors.
* Family meals are often the time when a parent finds out about what's going on in a child's life (three out of four teenagers report that they talk to their parents about this during meal time).

Unfortunately, with busy after-school and work schedules, regular family meals can be difficult to orchestrate. CCFC offers these tips:

* Start the tradition of family mealtime early on in a child's life. However, it's never too late to begin the tradition, even if your children are older.
* Delegate mealtime responsibilities to every member of the family, including the youngest family members.
* Work together to make mealtime an enjoyable - and less stressful - experience. I'm thinking meal prep and cleanup!
* With your child's input, agree upon the menu beforehand.
* Create a regular schedule of mealtimes, even if it is just two or three times a week.
* Concentrate on each other. Avoid electronic distractions!

To the last point, psychologist Sherry Turkle encourages families to create "sacred spaces" where devices are not allowed - including the family dinner table. I've heard others refer to creating "device-free zones" in your home. Whatever you call it, it's important to put down the smart phone or other electronic device during mealtime so you can focus on the conversation and on your family. Parents, especially, can set the tone for this with their kids. The message: you are important enough for me to join you for a meal - and to listen to what you have to say.

Having trouble getting dinner conversations started? One of my sisters gave us a gift that helps with just that. It's called "Beginner Dinner Games" and it's like a recipe box filled with cards that suggests topics to talk about and question-and-answer games to play with each other while at the table. Our version is for families with kids ages three to six, but the manufacturer also has games for families with older kids.

Another option is a set of cards called "Family Dinner Questions" by Melissa and Doug. They also have dinner question games with a theme, including faith-based questions, and questions for road trips and holidays. Our local specialty toy store sells these games.

There are also free conversation starters for families that I found doing a simple Internet search for "family dinner questions." There are dinner questions at blogs such as Balancing Beauty and Bedlam and Skip To My Lou. I haven't printed them myself, so I can't vouch for these web sites, but they look great!

Of course, you don't have to have pre-scripted cards at the dinner table (although they're fun!). Just being with each other is important, caring enough to ask each other, "How was your day?" My parents gave me that gift. I may have forgotten a lot of childhood memories, but one thing that hasn't left me is the memory of sitting down to meals with my parents, feeling so validated when they'd listen - and respond - to my stories from school. In particular, I thought that my stories from the school bus were so interesting and colorful, and even if they weren't, my parents seemed interested. They really cared about how my sisters and I were navigating through those social lessons that we learned during our long ride to and from school each day.

While I'm on the subject, my grandparents deserve credit for hosting family dinners on many Sundays when I was a kid. My sweet grandmother truly cannot remember much at all, but when we talk, she always speaks of family meals at her house. They are her favorite memories, she says.

I can speak firsthand to the effectiveness of family mealtimes. And I'm trying to replicate that for my kids.

For more information about how great family mealtimes are, see this CNN / article.

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