The Importance of Family Dinners

"What did you learn today?"
"Nothing? I find it hard to believe that you learned nothing during eight hours of school. Think about it for a bit and I'll ask you again later."

Sound familiar? This conversation was a common one in our household. It was a conversation my father would initiate; one that opened a discussion about the goings-on in his daughters' lives. It was also a conversation that likely might not have happened without regularly scheduled family dinners.

This is not my family.
Growing up, my family always ate dinner together. My dad would get home from work at about 6:00 in the evening, and ten minutes later we were all sitting around the table eating a delicious meal prepared by my mom. This daily tradition was consistent throughout my life, and I strongly believe that it contributed to my family's closeness. I mean, think back to all the television shows you've ever watched about families (because television is, of course, a direct reflection of real life). What do the Cleavers, the Waltons, the Bradys, the Tanners and the Cosbys (I could go on for days) have in common? Why they all ate dinner together, of course!

Silliness aside, many studies can attest to the importance of family dinners. For example, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse reports that teenagers who eat family dinners less than three times a week are twice as likely to use alcohol and tobacco, and one and a half times as likely to smoke marijuana as their peers who gather for a family meal between five and seven times a week. What's more, frequent family dinners increase the chances that children will eat healthier foods and perform better at school, and can also reduce the chance that children will suffer from depression or eating disorders. But family dinners don't just benefit children; they can even reduce the stress felt by working mothers (read more here).

Plus, they create some pretty wonderful memories.

Take, for example, the little traditions born around the table. Of course there was the aforementioned "What did you learn today?" question posed by my dad, but there was also the habit of saying grace. We had a book (cleverly titled Graces), that we kept near the dinner table and took turns reading from.

Graces by June Cotner

Sometimes we would substitute a written grace for a chance to come up with our own, go around and share something good that happened that day, or sometimes my dad would read something interesting he found in the newspaper. Though I may have occasionally rolled my eyes at this practice in the past, I now see the value in taking a moment to ground and center yourself before a meal, the moment that saying grace inevitably provides.

We also had some silly traditions that I remember fondly. At one point, I was given the ever-important title of light monitor which placed me in charge of dimming the lights to create the perfect ambiance. I took this task very seriously. My dad assumed the role of crust manager and would put out his hands to collect the uneaten crusts from my bread. Not so silly, but still memorable, was the task of setting the table (choosing the right placemat to complement that night's dinner was not always an easy task), and the ever-present reminder to "bus our dishes" when we were finished eating. Yes, our family dinners could be goofy, but they also taught my sister and I the importance of family communication, not to mention responsibility.

When I first visited the husband in Amsterdam after almost six months apart, we spent an entire month together. My fondest memories of this time are the evenings we spent cooking and eating. There were many. I think we cooked dinner just about every day that month with the exception of a few dinners out. We exchanged recipes, I did a lot of converting from cups and tablespoons to grams and milliliters (who am I kidding, I'm still converting measurements every time I try a new recipe), and we bonded as we ate a bunch of really delicious food together.

It was comforting to learn that his family worked in much the same way as mine. When he was growing up in France, his schools were excused for lunch. Yes, he had family lunches and family dinners. And, as I've experienced during my time at his childhood home, French family dinners can last quite a long time. From the aperitif to the meal itself,  plus the occasional cheese tray, dessert and digestive, I've spent a good three hours consuming one meal and enjoying the conversation that goes along with it.

It only seems natural to continue this tradition. In fact, the husband and I even worked in a line about sharing good food into our wedding vows. Each night, you can find us in the kitchen, sharing a homemade meal (with the exception of ordering the occasional pizza). It just might be my favorite part of the day as I catch up with my handsome husband over a delicious meal. I know it won't always be easy to keep this practice in action as we add to our family, but I'm confident that the benefits and memories will be worth the challenge.

1 comment:

  1. I'm gratified that our family dinners had a lasting good impression on you. Without your mother's insistence -- and her creative artistry in the kitchen -- we wouldn't have had regular family dinners. I didn't grow up with the tradition. She, on the other hand, learned the importance of sharing time, joys, sorrows, and life at the dinner table.