I recently received an advance copy of “The Hour that Matters Most: The Surprising Power of the Family Meal” by Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott. As a new parent with a 1-year old son and #2 already on the way, this is a topic that I have been thinking about a lot lately. In fact, my wife Catherine and I were just discussing our own histories with family meal times, and our goals as a family moving forward.
This is not something I ever thought much about before, but things change when you become a parent and you start reanalyzing your own childhood and imagining what you want for your children as they grow older. If we do want to have a family mealtime, it requires that we consciously think about how to make that happen. The family dinner just doesn’t seem to naturally fit into the program as easily as it did just a few decades ago.
When Catherine and I were kids, it was more the cultural norm to sit at the table and have dinner as a family. After all, there were no computers, no email, no video games, no cellphones, and while there was TV, it was in another room of the house and it only had 3 channels (no remote control) with all of the family programming starting after dinner time. (What we did have were books, and being a voracious reader as a child, I remember bringing my book to the kitchen table whenever I could.)
As a rule, meals were cooked at home. There were no microwave ovens, and most food was prepared fresh by mom in the kitchen. Going out to dinner was reserved for special occasions (like when Grandma was visiting) and bringing home a pizza (not delivered) was also a rare treat. I don’t remember going through a drive-through until I was in high school.
For my wife Catherine, who grew up in France, the culture of a social mealtime was even more pronounced. I noticed the cultural difference between us early in our relationship. For her, dinner is a time to savor, to linger, and to socialize. Dinner ends with long conversation punctuated by coffee and dessert. From my American perspective, meals are something to get through quickly so you can move on to the next thing (“No, I don’t want coffee and why haven’t you brought the check yet?”)
This American culture for “productive” use of time seems to have saturated everything we do. Cooking at home is no longer the norm. It’s much easier to get take-out or grab a bite at a local restaurant or drive through. Microwaved leftovers has become the rule and not the exception.
But as I look at my growing family, I can feel my values shifting (and butting up against an ingrained cultural program.) There are things I want to discuss with my wife. Things I want to teach my children. And time goes by so quickly. When will I have the chance if we don’t grab an hour each day to connect, to share the experiences we’ve had, to talk about values and goals?
In “The Hour that Matters Most”, the authors cite research showing the six “secrets” of having a thriving family: commitment, appreciation and affection, positive communication, time together, spiritual well-being, and the ability to cope with stress and crises. They suggest that the simple act of coming together on a nightly basis for dinner is the single most effective way to strengthen these six values in a family.
Sometimes this seems impossible, as everyone, kids and adults alike, are busy doing other things: working late, getting to the gym, playing with friends, watching TV, playing video games, etc. The average American family no longer has time for the family dinner.
But squeezing in a meal doesn’t add more stress into the day, it relieves it. 65% of parents say they feel less stressed when the family eats together and 70% of children say they appreciate their parents more after sharing a meal with them. Their research also shows that kids who eat dinner with their families eat more healthfully and develop better eating habits.
Laurie David, the author of “The Family Dinner” also speaks about the importance of the mealtime ritual (listen to a great lecture here.) She calls it “a nightly dress rehearsal for adulthood, a safe, dependable place to practice cooperation, patience, and manners, kindness and gratitude, and share stories.”
Both of these books provide excellent ideas for how to involve children in the mealtime ritual (including cooking,) how to make mealtimes fun and educational with great conversations, and how to use mealtimes to instill values in children.
What was your mealtime like as a child? How important was it to your development? How do you approach your meals today? Is anything missing? How can you make this the most meaningful part of your day? Are you taking advantage of “the hour that matters most?” I hope you are.
p.s. As an interesting side note: I couldn’t help but notice that when I searched for Family Dinner photographs on Flickr, a lot of older photos popped up such as the one I used above. Just another sign that the family meal is a lost art.
References and recommended reading:
David, L. (2010). The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time. Grand Central Life and Style.
Parrot, L. Parrot, L, Allen, S. & Kuna, T. (2011). The Hour that Matters Most: The Surprising Power of the Family Meal. Tyndale.