It’s quite common to hear that you should always read to your children at night. However, there is an activity that exposes your child to 700% more unique words than reading, and is correlated with high test scores for older children and teenagers.
That activity is eating family meals together. It’s so common to hear other parenting advice, but the list of benefits from eating together is unparalleled, and is one of the best things you can do for your children. If you think about it, it’s one of the few times where there is a big block of time that you can sit together with just a regular conversation flow – without talking about scheduling, homework, or problems. It’s a time set aside for you, your spouse, and your children to converse with no predetermined purpose.
Don’t just trust my opinion – this is what the published author, Harvard professor of psychology and family therapist Anne Fishel has to say about eating meals together:
“As a family therapist, I often have the impulse to tell families to go home and have dinner together rather than spending an hour with me. And 20 years of research in North America, Europe and Australia back up my enthusiasm for family dinners. It turns out that sitting down for a nightly meal is great for the brain, the body and the spirit. And that nightly dinner doesn’t have to be a gourmet meal that took three hours to cook, nor does it need to be made with organic arugula and heirloom parsnips.”
What we do in my family is stop by a local Costco, Wegman’s, or Walmart. Those supermarkets always stock party platters and other delicious and healthy foods in their catering section. For example, the Walmart Veggie Platter or Fruit Tray are both great to have around the house. Add some homemade pasta with chicken (which can be baked pasta with cheese the next night), and you literally have dinner for 2-3 nights. More importantly, you have quality time to spend with your family. The total dinner preparation time is less than 15 minutes, and the best part is that there is virtually no cleanup of dishes needed to cook and cut. You also save a lot of time by not needing to shop for specific items.
Aside from the school and grade benefits listed above, eating together is excellent for your child’s mental health. It’s correlated with reduced suicidal thoughts in teenagers, an improved positive outlook, and a massive reduction in negative behaviors in teenagers. Negative teenager behaviors, as defined in the article, include violence in school, recreational drug use, eating disorders, binge drinking, smoking and sexual activity at a young age.
One important caveat to all these benefits is that the environment matters. That means that the TV must be turned off and smart phones and other screens should be in another room (or at the very least face down on silent and not on the dinner table). As a matter of fact, eating while distracted with a screen is heavily correlated with overeating and being overweight.
The mood you set with your children also is very important – think of warm, engaging and interesting conversation. Try to listen, and especially try hard not to judge or offer advice unless it’s asked for. I suggest practicing active listening, where every few sentences you repeat back to the speaker, in your own words, what they are saying. This type of listening shows the person speaking that they have your full, undistracted attention. It’s very important to create a safe space for conversation to flow smoothly and without criticism (and sometimes unrequested advice can sound like criticism). It will make this a different experience for everyone, especially teenagers and adolescent children.
It’s clear that family mealtimes are one of the best things you can do for your family as a parent. Everyone has a limited amount of time, and the truly successful people in life are able to prioritize more important tasks over less important ones. I’ve made it my mission to eat meals together as a family at least 5 times a week, and if you include breakfast then many times we can eat together 10 times a week.
The way I do this is by focusing on the task of eating together – I try not to get too caught up in the preparation of the meal and in the cleanup. That’s why I like ordering food off the catering menu at supermarkets – it’s quick, easy, healthy, and relatively inexpensive.