Families That Eat Together


My book club chose a parenting book for the back-to-school season, Leonard Sax's excellent The Collapse of Parenting. You just know, with a dismal title like that, that there'll be some good anecdotes in there that make you feel like, possibly, you aren't in the bottom quartile of Worst Parents in the World. The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups

I was hoping reading this book would provide the Schadenfreude I used to experience when I turned to episodes of Supernanny when my kids were younger. It didn't disappoint.

But Sax didn't just bemoan the failings of modern parenting. He also talked about what helped. And since this is a food-related blog, I'm zeroing in on the much-lauded family mealtime. Because family mealtime came in as Recommendation #2, just after (to paraphrase) Be the Boss of Them!

Eat dinner with your kids. And no cell phones allowed, no TV in the background during dinner.

(I squirmed a little during that last bit because we often have the Mariners game on, but I rationalize that, since they're usually losing, we don't pay it much attention.)

According to Sax, eating meals together yields a host of benefits, regardless of background or income level.

Kids who had more meals with parents were less likely to have "internalizing problems" such as feeling sad, anxious, or lonely. They were less likely to have  "externalizing problems" such as fighting, skipping school, stealing, etc. They were more likely to help others and to report feeling satisfied with their own lives.

And the benefits didn't require nightly dinners, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. It turned out that

at almost every step from zero up to 7 evening meals a week, each extra dinner a child had with a parent decreased the risk of both internalizing problems and externalizing problems and increased both prosocial behavior and the child's general satisfaction with life.

See what magic food and community are? I think of my own family's dinner conversation last night. It mostly centered around how my 15YO son didn't like the soup I'd made, but it prompted him to come up with a couplet rhyming "cabbage" and "garbage." You know--art. Just to let me know how he felt about it. Magic.

I post this recommendation now because all the kids' crazy after-school activities and school itself are now under way, which means the schedule goes out the window. How on earth, you ask me, can we all sit down to eat together? I guess I just have to throw up my hands and wait for internalized and externalized problems!

Sax would say to limit the after-school activities, but even participation in one sport at the middle- or high-school level usually involves practices/games taking multiple nights per week. Then multiply that times your number of children, and you see how you'd basically have to put the kybosh on ALL sports or only allow one child to have a sporting life.

I've come up with some compromises:

  • Breakfasts and lunches can count! I try to plop myself down and eat my breakfast when the kids are eating. Or if they trail in and out at different times, I like everyone to have a little human contact.
  • Divide-and-conquer will have to do. Can one parent be there, even if the kids have to eat at different times?
  • Substitute quality time for quality time. The dinner hour might be chaos, but is there time in the afternoon for a shared snack or an errand together or even a game? Can there be a chunk of time set aside on the weekend for family time?
  • Bribe them. I usually manage to get my youngest to come to the Market with me by promising her her choice of snack.
  • Prioritize what family time remains. We don't do a lot of evening entertaining or being entertained because I'm trying to hoard what we still have. No need for the kids to go for sleepovers during the school year or dinners at someone else's house.

Fall is always the worst season for family meals, but, because my oldest only does a fall sport, things calm down considerably by mid-November. Anything can be survived for a season. It's when it becomes year-round that you might have to call a time-out.

Happy back-to-school to all! I'd better wrap this up now, because I have to plan and start tonight's dinner, to be eaten in two shifts...