Some dietitians claim breakfast is the most important meal of your day. Others say the midday meal. But look beyond mere nutritional or metabolic benefits. Let’s make the case for dinner—specifically, family dinner.
The tradition of eating dinner together as a family is getting rarer and rarer. The modern world has ushered the stay-at-home mother into the workforce. It has replaced her home-cooked meals with fast food, frozen dinners and takeout. Parents are working longer hours. Extracurricular activities can pull teens away in the evenings. Kids have grown used to foraging for snacks at all hours in lieu of real meals. Whatever the reasons, studies show that fewer than one third of all children have a sit-down dinner with both parents on any given night.
What a loss. Family supplies the most precious relationships we have. Weaving a family into a unified team doesn’t happen automatically; it takes time and effort. Perhaps nothing builds that bond like the daily rhythm of coming together at the table. When a family breaks bread, its members are nourished not just by the food but also by the company they share.
Yes, it takes effort. You have to coordinate schedules, forgo competing claims on your time and attention, and, ideally, get ingredients and cook some food. But it is effort worth making.
For starters, a homemade family dinner tends to be healthier than what you would otherwise eat. One Harvard Medical School study didn’t even note what kind of food was consumed, and still found that people who eat dinner with the family “most days” or “every day” are 15 percent less likely to be overweight. But if you’re eating truly nutritious food, you’re sure to enjoy immeasurable benefits in foregone sickness, increased energy and improved health.
Beyond that, amid the busyness of your day-to-day, your evening meal should be a welcome time together among family members. This creates a sense of connection and belonging, of emotional grounding and balance, that can stabilize the lives of every member, particularly the younger ones.
This value is actually measurable. One Columbia University study found that teens in families that almost never eat together are 72 percent likelier than the average teen to use illegal drugs, cigarettes and alcohol. Those who eat dinner with their parents fewer than three times a week are likelier to smoke and drink than those who eat with their parents six times a week. Clearly family meals enable parents to get involved with their children and build a strong bond that children can lean on.
Some time ago, I realized that my family wasn’t eating together many nights. Because of various after-school and evening activities, our schedules conflicted, and people were just serving themselves at their own opportunity. I decided to change that. We studied the schedule and found at least a 20-minute window each night—it was at a different time each night, but it was there—where we could eat together.
The positive effects were excellent, and immediate. This may have been the single best thing we have ever done to build more cohesion and unity in our family.
Family dinner also provides opportunity to teach your children to eat properly. The need is certainly great. Just watch schoolchildren eat among themselves, or even with adults present: They tend to engage in some pretty unrefined behavior. Manners at the table are a small but significant part of politeness, respectability and civility. Children—and adults—need the reinforcement of good table manners that can occur only when a family eats together regularly.
If family dinners are the day’s most important meal, what is the most important ingredient at those dinners? Love. As Proverbs 15:17 says, “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it” (Revised Standard Version). Even a meager dinner is enjoyable in good company.
When both parents go to work and children go to school, dinnertime is a much-needed opportunity for everyone to gather and converse about the day. It is your chance to connect, share, listen, laugh, and strengthen bonds of unity and love.
It is also a chance to grow in conversational skill, and to learn to give and contribute to a discussion. Once my family got into the nightly dinner habit, I sought to improve our conversation at the table. I asked every member to come ready with some points of discussion: a joke, a question, a story from their day, a current event, and so on. This immediately changed what had been rather stilted mealtime chatting into a robust conversation. Before long I didn’t need to require prepared topics; everyone got used to thinking of things they could share over dinner.
While this exercise improved our skill at conversing, it did something more wonderful: It helped us learn to enjoy each other. We began sharing ourselves more, laughing together more—even learning how to poke fun in love and to laugh at ourselves more. We began more freely discussing plans and things to do together. These benefits were unforeseen, yet priceless.
Savor those family dinners. Make them a vital part of your life. Take advantage of the most important meal of the day!