Have we Lost the Family Meal?

I surely hope not, but it is beginning to look that way. Today most families have two working parents. We are shuffling kids to soccer games, dance lessons, music lessons, etc. Most of the activities outside of school involve games and practices around our traditional dinner hour.

Moms and Dads are fighting rush hour traffic to get home and get the kids in the car and off to…..you name it! We’re eating in our cars – or if the kids are old enough they are grabbing food at home. Kids preparing their own meals is a bit scary – likely to be frozen pizza, chips, pretzels and/or frozen dinners (I doubt there’ll be broccoli and greens involved!).

There’s less and less cooking (if any) and more fast food and frozen meals for the microwave. Sitting down together and having dialogues is rapidly disappearing.

I remember being called in from the street (where we played with our neighborhood friends – rode our bikes, skated, or just hung outdoors) to come in for dinner at 5:00 o’clock sharp. So was everyone else. All activity stopped and everyone was inside with their families getting ready to sit down and eat together. There was no choice in the matter, but you looked forward to it even though you had to leave your friends for the day.

According to the Food Marketing Institute, just 40 percent of American families eat meals together, and then, no more than two or three times a week. Are you thinking that’s really sad? Or are you thinking – no big deal, we’re just all too busy for that!

It’s not just nutrition that will suffer without the family meal. We are missing the most important time of the day for families to come together and tell their stories of the day.

It’s amazing how much information you can get from your spouse and/or your kids around the table with good food and an open invitation to talk. You are not likely to get the same conversation while you are in the car rushing to baseball practice or dance.

This hectic pace is not limited to families that have school aged children. I actually see this pace continue with couples in retirement! Ouch!

“…. most important, the family dinner gives family members a chance to reconnect with each other after a long day at school or work. ” Families need good, quality time together and shared meals are a great way to accomplish that goal,” says Barbara James, an associate professor of Family and Consumer Sciences at Ohio State University Extension. “If you don’t spend regular time together, family members grow apart. They begin to feel more like roommates sharing a house together rather than members of the same family.”

I am of the mindset that says losing family meals around the kitchen or dining room table would be a terrible loss. We are already getting more and more disconnected from each other because of cell phones and computers. Even though it seems like a universal way to connect – we are really distancing ourselves because we are losing that amazing “face to face” experience.

Despite the hectic schedules, long hours of work and busy activities families are subject to, it is still possible and not terribly hard to have family meals.

Let’s take a look at some ways we can save our family meal time from Extinction!

Schedule the days you can make it work.

Start with even one or two meals a week. If the week-end is the only time you can gather everyone around the table, be sure to plan ahead. Set aside the time and make sure that all family members can be present.

It doesn’t have to be dinner. Breakfast and brunch together on week-ends is a great way to get started. Make sure you think ahead to what you will be making and get everyone involved. Kids can help prepare at any age – they can set the table, they can crack the eggs.

I have spent many Sunday mornings in the kitchen with my family (most especially my two grandsons who are 9 and 6 years old) preparing breakfast that we all eat together. They love to beat the eggs or sprinkle the cinnamon on the French toast. I assure you that everyone is more likely to at least try things if they have a hand in preparing it. Setting the table doesn’t have to be a chore – it is an important element of the participation. You can’t sit down as a family without the plates, forks, knives, etc.

You’d be surprised who will be taking on the tasks. My 9 year old grandson loves to draw place cards or placemats or make table decorations for meals. The good news there is that he willingly sits still at the table and is more concerned about not making a mess.

Who knows? You might find out that Dad likes to cook and/or the kids enjoy greens and you didn’t even know it.

What always happens though is that there is laughter and conversation and I learn something I didn’t know about that happened during the day or the previous one.
Meals are relaxing and it opens the door to wonderful dialogue.

Get Creative

Once you have figured out the times you can be together – think about what you can make that everyone can participate in. This is the opportunity to make a new recipe that might become a tradition – like blueberry buckwheat pancakes on Sunday morning or Veggie Frittatas on Saturday. You can reintroduce an old family favorite and make that a tradition.

Or – you can vary it all the time. Ask everyone to choose what they would like. I know that can cause conflict – but you can have a drawing and pick a different dish every time so someone always gets their top pick.

Whatever works to make it special for your special family dynamic will be the “golden nugget”.
My grandsons will do anything for my special homemade egg sandwiches or their Mom’s homemade pancakes. They have their special ways they like to eat them and Sunday morning is a good time in our household to make a special fuss and even be a “short order cook” so everyone can have what they like best. That doesn’t work on week-day nights of course.

I have noticed that the more leisurely the meal – the more conversation comes bubbling up.

Ditch the Electronics.

You can have a basket for everyone to deposit their cell phones, t.v. remotes, ipads, etc. If you are going to have only one or two mealtimes to spend together, you’ll need to make the most of it. Electronic devices are sure to break down all communication so toss them before you get seated.
We need to bring back the art of conversation. We’re all so used to multitasking – especially texting while having a conversation – we’ve forgotten how to make eye contact and how to communicate

Remember – It’s Dinner not Q & A.

If we are going to have the experience of fun and lively chats during dinner, it is best not to make this a time to interrogate everyone about the day’s events. That puts stress on the interaction and you won’t find out what really went on before you sat down to dinner. Kids are likely to clam up and skirt around the issues.

Just try putting out the meal and letting go of the results. If you want your kids to try certain foods, you can even make that the topic of conversation. Find out some fun fact about the broccoli or spinach and see if that sparks some interest.

Sometimes it is really effective to give everyone a turn to talk about something – whether it’s the food in front of them, or how their day at school or work went, or what they are looking forward to….. it will be a conversation.