The Power of the Family Meal

Well-BeingThe Sis sisters have long been advocates of the family dinner, and no I’m not referring to the meal that adds biscuits and mashed potatoes to your bucket of chicken. We believe there are benefits to the family eating dinner (more or less the same dinner) at the same time, at the same table, preferably not from the same plate – but to each his own (ha!). It turns out that science supports the benefits (or at least the correlation with good things) of eating dinner together. Anne Fishel, a psychology professor at Harvard, very eloquently describes these benefits and correlations and offers some insight into why they just might be a little more than correlation here. Fishel feels so strongly about the power of family dinner that she often tells therapy clients that they’d be better off eating dinner with their families than talking with her for an hour. Wow. So, what’s so great about it anyway?

The benefits that Ms. Fishel highlights in her article are largely those experienced by the children in a family. I’ll sum them up for you and then reflect a little on what I think the implied benefits for parents, spouses, and folks who choose to live by themselves might also be in thinking about dinner as a sacred time.

For kids. Family dinners seem to hold benefits for children of all ages. The youngest children increase their vocabulary faster, which in turn makes them more proficient and earlier readers. School aged children who eat family meals tend to perform better in all academic measures. Teens who eat family dinners get better grades than those who do not. Teens who eat dinner en famille are also less likely to engage in high risk behaviors than their peers, less likely to be depressed, and more likely to have a positive outlook about the future. All children who eat family dinners tend to eat more healthfully and experience fewer chronic health problems (such as asthma and obesity).

Okay, so if you have children, I’ve got you… I mean, right? So all you need to do is just eat together. Simple… Yeah, simple. I confess that for me right now, this one is pretty simple. My kids are 8. The only activities and play dates they are involved in are the ones I set up for them. I have pretty good control over what they are doing when and being sure they will be home in time for dinner, or making dinner work around the occasional thing so we can all still eat together. I am well aware that this trick can get a lot harder as they get older.

SacredDinnerGiven that reality, I think it’s important to note that the article doesn’t say that everyone must have every dinner with the family to experience benefits. Nor does it say everyone in the family should stop doing everything they care about outside the home immediately so all meals can be consumed together. Eating dinner as a family might be a great thing to baby step up on. If it never happens, maybe a commitment to once a week would be a great place to start. If it happens three times a week, maybe there’s a way to add a fourth. Checking our reality, making some adjustments, asking everyone to shift a little creates a space and in this space we can find a sacred moment or two to create and savor some nourishment. (She said it agin: “sacred.” Why does she keep saying that?”)

So here’s where it seems to me that the benefits that those researchers are finding for kids who eat family meals might be a little more broadly understood as benefits for anyone who treats their meal as a sacred time. Researchers talk about the family meal as a time to set aside the hustle bustle of the day, to interact with people whose experiences are both different and shared, to reflect on and share our individual experiences, to become grounded and relaxed, to gain perspective before we enter the next phase of whatever it is we’re doing. Now I’m not a scientist, but I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts that children aren’t the only ones who could use a little of that kind of dinner. Part of the beauty of family dinner, or couple dinner, or individual dinner without a laptop, is our insistence on it, our creation of that space for a sacred hour that allows us to distance ourselves from all that is outside and to check in with all that is inside.

Well-BeingIt is only through our insistence that the sacred space is both created and maintained. It is with our insistence that we honor ourselves and the need for a time that is not shared with the television, with advertisers, or with our employers. It is with our insistence that we say that we as individuals and as groups are important enough to nourish fully, to occupy a sacred space, and reap the benefits therein. As my own children age and our family schedules shift, I hope to continue to insist on this sacred event, even at the expense of the occasional activity, at the expense of the occasional professional opportunity, and at the expense of convenience. I hope to continue to find that the benefits outweigh the sacrifice and to feel the nourishment that we create together.