It’s 4:50 p.m. on a Wednesday, and this is the scene at my house: I’m madly rushing to finish up cooking dinner, while tripping on my 1-year-old who, in preparation for her witching hour, has thrown herself at my feet. Meanwhile, the 5-year-old is bemoaning his starvation, despite the fact that he had a snack an hour ago, and his dinnertime smoothie is already in front of him.
I slam their food on the table, like an ornery waitress at one of those 1950s-themed diners, but I won’t be sitting down with my kids to eat tonight. Sure, I may plop down in exhaustion on the chair next to my son, but I’ll be up in three minutes, cleaning up spilled milk from my kindergartener or thrown food from the toddler.
My husband won’t be joining us either, thanks to his Silicon Valley job with a long commute and even longer hours.
Yet again, we won’t be having a family dinner together. Even though I know my husband and I spend plenty of time with our young children, I still feel guilty when I see report after report extolling the virtues of having every member in the family sit down together for an evening meal.
I know we’re not the only family who’s not having dinner together tonight and feeling bad about it.
But a study from 2012 can assuage our guilt. Researchers from the University of Minnesota found that family dinner itself did not create the benefits that have been previously reported in children whose families share nightly mealtime: lower obesity rates, greater academic success, and fewer instances of substance abuse and delinquent behavior. Instead, family dinner was “a marker for families that have a bundle of traits that contribute to good child outcomes,” MinnPost reported.
Families that regularly have mealtime together tend to have more time and money and are more likely to have a non-employed, stay-at-home mother than families who don’t dine together, according to the report.
Unlike in previous studies on family mealtimes, researchers for the University of Minnesota report were able to use data that asked both children and parents questions about their family life, and it asked these questions at several different times during the participants’ childhoods. The data came from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, a long-term study of a sample of 18,000 children.
The study’s conclusion is a classic example of confusing correlation – a relationship among traits– for causation – cause and effect. It’s also reminiscent of recent research that indicates that the previously-reported benefits of breastfeeding have been exaggerated. (Breastfed babies tend to be in families with more resources than formula-fed children, and this socioeconomic status is more likely the cause of these children’s better health and well-being.)
In a similar vein, Bruce Feiler, a New York Times columnist and author of the book “The Secrets of Happy Families,” argued that it’s not the family dinner that yields the benefits, but the quality time spent together – no matter the occasion or time of day.
In his research into tens of thousands of catalogued chats around the dinner table, Feiler found that there is actually only 10 minutes of real conversation.
“The rest is taken up with ‘take your elbows off the table’ and ‘pass the ketchup’ and all that kind of stuff,” he told radio program “The Splendid Table.”
So if regular family dinners don’t work for your family – like mine – there’s no need to feel guilty, Ann Meier, co-author of the University of Minnesota study and University of Minnesota associate professor of sociology, told MinnPost. Phew.
Family meals “may be a nice kind of ritual context for good parenting to happen,” she said, but families can connect with each other at other times and in other ways.
Feiler came to a similar conclusion, saying that as long as families can find 10-15 minutes a day to bond and have that “real conversation,” they will reap the same benefits as having family dinner. Taking the concept of “time-shifting” from the work world, he said, families who can’t eat together nightly can simply time-shift their family time.
How can your busy family carve out 15-30 minutes a day to check in and spend quality time together? Here are five alternatives to the revered family dinner:
This is one of the alternate rituals Feiler recommended, but is family breakfast a truly viable option for families scrambling to pack lunches, make daycare and school dropoff, and get to work? Apparently so, I found when I crowdsourced family-dinner-alternative ideas from friends and parenting groups on Facebook.
“We only do family dinner 1-3 times per week, but we have breakfast together every morning,” said Beth Wolf, mom of two children under four in Chicago. “The kids get us up early anyway!”
Family breakfast is an ideal choice for families with little ones who are up at the crack of dawn. If you’re up with your kids and sleep-deprived long before you have to start your morning commute, why not share some eggs and toast together?
Since my kids changed their nap schedules this summer and started going to bed at 7 p.m. – before my husband even gets home from work – an evening video call through the Houseparty app has become part of my family’s daily routine. It’s a chance for my son to tell Daddy about what happened at transitional kindergarten that day and the toddler to say “Dada, Dada” excitedly when she sees her dad’s face – and a great replacement for the family dinner that doesn’t work with our family’s schedule.
Family video chats are well-suited for families where a parent travels a lot or works odd hours, like Laura Birks-Reinert’s family in New Jersey. Her husband works nights, so she and her twin 6-year-old boys Skype with Daddy at 7 p.m. every day, sometimes during bath time.
Many families feel like mealtimes aren’t the best time for real conversation anyway. Families with young children often spend most of dinnertime cleaning up spills and managing one crisis after another. Tweens and teens feel like they’re being interrogated about school and friends when everyone is gathered at the dinner table, staring at them.
Family play time might, in fact, be a better way to spend quality time than mealtimes.
“In our home, our family spends plenty of time together,” said Teresa Currivan, parent coach and mother to an 11-year-old in Oakland, Calif. “As long as some of that is quality time, I’m fine skipping the family dinner. Our family does improv games together, Nerf battles, etc. Play lends itself to more connection than sitting and eating together all the time – at least for my gang.”
Blogger and author Kelly Holmes has instituted a 5-10-minute family cuddle time in bed after everyone returns from work and school to give her family of five a chance to re-connect before their busy evening routine starts.
While family play happens more spontaneously with little ones, there are still ways to engage with older kids. Families can gather for weekend board game nights or participate in daily conversation games that author Bruce Feiler recommended: “Bad and Good” (every family member takes a turn telling one thing that was good about their day and one that was bad) or “Pain Points” (everyone talks about a difficult situation they’re facing).
Special weekly routines
Like the weekend board game nights I previously mentioned, creating weekly family traditions is another great way to bond, especially as your kids grow older and want to spend less time with you and more time hiding in their rooms, on Snapchat with friends.
Move family dinner to Sunday night, and invite the kids to help you prep and cook. Bring the family together for Sunday brunch, go for a walk Sunday afternoon before dinner, or sit down for a movie and bowl of popcorn Saturday night.
Make use of all those hours you spend in the car, shuttling the kids to and from after-school activities. Instead of conversation during family dinner, this is where your family’s real discussions can happen.
Car chats are what works best for Jacqui Pastoral-Conclara and her husband in San Bruno, Calif., as they drive their three boys (ages 11, 13 and 15), to after-school sports and weekend travel tournaments.
“I found that the time we drive to the games is the perfect opportunity to connect with my kids,” she said. “They tend to be introspective and profound in these conversations when trapped traveling in the car with their parents.”
And if your child is feeling a bit reticent about opening up on their own during the drive, try one of Feiler’s conversational games: “Bad and Good” or “Pain Points.”
A special note about teenagers
Remember that University of Minnesota study showing that family dinner isn’t what leads to the positive outcomes in children? There’s one exception – teenagers (teenagers are always the exception, right?).
According to the researchers, adolescents whose families shared mealtimes tended to report fewer symptoms of depression. Study author Ann Meier theorized that these regular family meals might be an opportunity for parents to check on their teenager’s emotional well-being and intervene if necessary.
(There was no similar association between family dinner and adolescent substance abuse or delinquency, like shoplifting or damaging property.)
But again, if you’re a parent of teenagers and can’t fit nightly family mealtimes into your schedule, connect with your kids with Sunday dinner or conversation during car rides.
No matter what your children’s ages, try to take at least 10-15 minutes a day to really be there for them. Put down your phone, turn off the TV or car radio, open your ears, and see what happens.