Experts are always touting the benefits of family dinner, but it’s a logistical nightmare. We’re doing something different.
Last week, my husband’s birthday coincided with a long-awaited school carnival. Three of our children spent the evening face-painting, bounce-housing, and pizza-eating, another at the bowling alley for a friend’s party, before we all convened in the kitchen, very much in need of baths, and far too late for a family dinner. But it was a birthday. And while we did not get to do our usual “fancy dinner,” whereby the kids set the table, fussing over fork placement and making sure the guest of honor gets the best cup (the green one), we gathered around the kitchen island, big kids on their knees on stools, baby plopped right on the counter, and sang our hearts out over an apple pie with 39 candles (my husband doesn’t like cake, which will have to be a whole ‘nother article).
We cheered through the smoke after he made his wish. I looked around as we all ate our pie, listening to the three-year-old rehash each trick the carnival magician had done, and I knew that even when family dinner is apple pie past bedtime, it gets the job done.
The benefits of family dinners are endless: improved communication, better table manners, healthier eating, learned division of tasks, etc. Science has proven the positive health impacts of family meals on young people (think better grades, less depression). The root of it all is connection.
And sometimes play practice, hockey games, and violin recitals mean that connection might not happen over a pot roast with a side of potatoes at 6:30PM. To be clear, I will take every single family dinner I can get — I never tire of hearing the day’s highs and lows (“popsicles” and “poopsicles” as we call them), but on the days when they simply cannot happen, I’ll take a breakfast, lunch, snack, or dessert, because what we all need is the togetherness.
Sitting down with one’s family, away from technology and sharing a meal, builds connectedness in a way that isn’t replicable. “We were together,” as Walt Whitman said, “I forget the rest.”
Dinner is the pinnacle family meal — especially since no one is rushing off to work or school, and there is a whole day to reflect upon — but don’t sleep on family breakfast.
First off, there’s a lot less fight in our house over strawberries and French toast than there is over broccoli and salmon (who can blame them). And while at breakfast there might not be a whole day to look back on, there is one ahead. What are you most excited about today? Nervous? How can we pump each other up to tackle the hurdles? Sitting down with family at breakfast is a worthy alternative, because what remains is the ritual.
Growing up, we all had our seats at the table, we all had our tasks (floor, dishes, milks), and we all sat down for dinner at least five nights a week. My brother had to put on a shirt. Cloth napkins in laps. I’m pretty sure there was even a bread plate. By the time all of my siblings had left for college, when it was just me with my parents, forks clinking in the quiet, I bemoaned the family dinner. My parents persisted, and I’m glad they did, because even though I cannot cook like my mom, and my family now eats a lot more frozen nuggets than filet mignon, I know that it matters to sit down for a meal.
These days, with the same old challenges looming for my one-day teenaged children, along with some very scary new ones, I’ll keep the family dinner in my arsenal of defense. (Family dinners have been proven to mitigate the effects of cyberbullying, for one).
I set out to answer the question: how important are family dinners? And the answer is very. But I also ask, can we do family breakfast instead? And I think it’s a yes. If you are together, distraction-free, eating, sharing, connecting, let the sun be high or low — let it be gone altogether. Last week, with my family eating apple pie around the kitchen island, we were no Norman Rockwell portrait, one child’s face still painted like a zombie skeleton. But it’s the picture I’d rather have on my wall anyway.
Hampton Williams Hofer lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she writes and raises babies. Her work has appeared in Flying South, Walter Magazine, Architectural Digest, and Food 52, among others. Family aside, her great loves are a South Carolina beach, a Roger Federer backhand, a Charlottesville lawn, and–most of all–a good story.