Family Mealtime: The Hour that Matters Most

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.

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8 Responses to Family Mealtime: The Hour that Matters Most

  1. Marie-Josee Shaar October 11, 2011 at 7:23 pm #

    Another great reflection, Jeremy! I totally relate to everything you are saying here!

    Today at lunch I was having a similar reflection as I was talking with folks from the spa industry about the the slow food movement. This practice also tries to bring us back to a more natural way of eating by feeding the body and soul at the same time.

    I sometimes get puzzled with how we got so far off track that we need research and books to remind us of what should be so basic, intuitive and natural! (Yet at the same time, I totally get it, which is why I wrote one such book myself!) 😉

    I think there is a huge yearning for getting back to these values. What we need is to actively move away from the “nothing but profit” mentality, because it’s gone to far, and it’s really not leading us in a positive direction anymore.

    MJ

  2. Mark A McKenney @MarktheSpaMan October 11, 2011 at 11:35 pm #

    Awesome article! It brought back memories of family dinners growing up overseas in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. We always had dinners at home together much like your picture. Currently I still enjoy dining out with friends and having good conversation with wine and taking your time eating – ‘slow food movement’ as Marie-Josee mentioned.

    On another note I was actually trying to work on ‘packaged deals’ in a prior daily deals job that I had for a few months. It was interesting; a combination of food, drink with friends/family worked better than selling ‘singles deals’. Perhaps with entertainment, the arts mixed in- trying to get people to the Downtown Dallas Arts District!

    Mark A McKenney
    Dallas, TX

  3. @NikiGlanz October 13, 2011 at 2:13 pm #

    First, congrats on your second child (in the making). Wonderful news and wishing you, Catherine, and your son all the best in welcoming your family addition.

    Second, your observations about the importance of the family meal is corroborated by my current research study on happy childhood experiences Although not cited near as often as often as play and outdoor activities (including sports), many highlighted it. In fact, some people remembered the combined joys of eating together and the out-of-doors with picnics and even a brief stop for sandwiches outside on a long road-trip!

    Third, by intertwining personal information with general points we all benefit. People learn best through stories because they combine emotions with factual knowledge, so readers are more apt to “get” and remember your point. And, in providing readers with a “template” of sorts, no doubt you’re encouraging people to similarly reflect, tying past to present and projecting to the future. Making stories of our lives generates positivity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993; McAdams, 2006) and confers specific benefits, such as self-identity (Beike & Niedenthal, 1998), increased positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2001, 2009), cognitive reconstruction (Lyubomirsky et al, 2006), resilience (Sommer & Baumeister, 1998), and morality (Blasi, 2004).

    Thanks for informative and provocative articles week after week, Jeremy!

  4. Doug Hensch October 13, 2011 at 2:25 pm #

    Jeremy – Thanks for this post. It really spoke to me.

    I do not disagree with your reasons for why Americans may be more likely to move on the dinner table to “the next thing.” I would like to add one – extracurricular activities (mostly sports).

    I grew up playing and watching sports but the requirements of even the youngest kids, today, is completely overwhelming. Where I had practice once or twice a week, kids are playing in ‘house’ leagues and trying out for ‘travel’ teams that sometimes having them (literally) running from one practice to another game all in one day.

    I find this to be real challenge as the father of two little boys who play sports and are pretty good at them. As they get older, I am curious to see if their mother and I can learn how to say “no” when it gets to be too much.

    Thanks, again.

    dh

  5. Denise Csaky November 17, 2011 at 1:31 pm #

    Jeremy,

    What you’ve written here is so true. Growing up, despite the fact that my parents both worked full-time, we always, always had a home-cooked meal on the table at 6pm. Don’t ask me how they did it…and actually, don’t ask them either because when I ask them now, they just shrug their shoulders!

    In addition to the psychological benefits of eating together at home, there are physical health benefits as well. I recently read a blurb that said: 4 pounds–the difference between someone who eats slowly or one who eats quickly. As much as most of us love to eat out or pick something up out of convenience, we know that the make up of restaurant/take out food is usually not as quality and as nutritious as something we could make at home. Since the physical and mental are so intimately connected, all these facts go hand-in-hand.

    Thanks for the insight!
    Denise

  6. Jeremy McCarthy November 19, 2011 at 3:16 pm #

    Thanks for your comment Denise! You and your sister are both so lovely, I’m sure we could all learn a lot from your parents! 🙂 Thanks for reading and sharing your comments! Hugs, J

  7. Wanda Love December 3, 2011 at 12:08 pm #

    Wonderful article, Jeremy!
    Growing up on a farm with a large family (8 kids), dinner time was always a little chaotic but dining together at the table was mandatory. The only exception was on Sunday evenings when we were allowed a real ‘treat’….setting up tv trays and eating dinner in the living room while watching “Wonderful World of Disney”. Frankly, I’m sure Sunday nights were a treat for my parents as well, as they could enjoy a peaceful dinner together at the kitchen table while the kids were happily watching tv.
    After leaving home, I was single for many years and, sadly, dinner became simply a chore and was often consumed standing at the counter or could take several hours as i would be working away at something and simply grabbing a bite here and there when I thought of it.
    Since marrying, my husband and I have made it a ritual to always eat dinner together. And since moving to Russia, it’s an essential component of the day, providing an opportunity to share the triumphs and challenges of living in a very different culture – and to laugh at our ridiculous efforts to converse with others using our rudimentary Russian language skills.
    One of our favourite things to do is have a leisurely afternoon on the weekend, shopping for ingredients and spending hours preparing a special multi-course meal to be enjoyed slowly, while sipping some wine and catching up with one another.
    Sad that family meal time has become lost in the hectic pace of everyday life. I believe it’s invaluable as an opportunity to connect with one another.

  8. Jeremy McCarthy December 12, 2011 at 11:08 pm #

    I just used Random.org to randomly select one of the commenters from this article to receive a free copy of this book. Congratulations Mark!!! You won! Thanks for your comments and engaging with TPOW!

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