Many people are so busy nowadays and are struggling to keep up with their crazy schedule that family meal times are rushed and infrequent, if they happen at all. Gathering at the table is one of the most powerful things you can ever do with your family. Your own experience may have been good, or troubled, but you now have the opportunity to start this impactful practice with your own family. Here are 18 reasons why!
1. Connection-Children are part of a family and gathering at meal times reinforces this and has a deep impact on children’s sense of belonging. It is also very beneficial to gather with grandparents (or older relatives) so that the connection between the generations is understood.
Question: How often do you have meals with your parents and grandparents?
2. Close family traditions-The repeated and familiar adds stability and security to children. Family traditions have great power to do this. Traditions can be from the simple, every day ones, to larger more significant gatherings. My mom used to make pancakes/drop scones with golden syrup on rainy afternoons. My sister and I still think about this and want to eat this yummy treat when it rains. Food type traditions can also help one feel Comfort, as they will remind you of home, even for years to come.
Question: What one family tradition that happened at the table stands out to you?
3. Confidence-Research has shown that children who eat family meals on a regular basis each week are more confident, achieve better academically and are less likely to participate in destructive behaviors as teenagers.
For school-age youngsters, regular mealtime is an even more powerful predictor of high achievement scores than time spent in school, doing homework, playing sports or doing art.
Adolescents who ate family meals five to seven times a week were twice as likely to get A’s in school as those who ate dinner with their families fewer than two times a week.
Regular family dinners lower many high risk teenage behaviors: smoking, drinking, marijuana use, violence, school problems, eating disorders and sexual activity. In one study of more than 5,000 teens, researchers concluded that regular family dinners were associated with lower rates of depression and suicidal thoughts. Children who struggled with cyber bullying did better if there were family dinners. Family dinners have been found to be a more powerful deterrent against high-risk teen behaviors than church attendance or good grades.
Teens who dine regularly with their families also have a more positive view of the future.
Question: How do these statistics impact you?
4. Civility-It is important to have good manners and the dinner table is an essential place to teach children to keep their elbows off the table, eat with their mouths closed, etc. (You remember those table prompts I am sure!) If one plans to travel, it is good to learn how to eat the way other cultures eat, so practice with chopsticks, or with a knife in the right hand (for the Americans).
Question: Do you know how to eat like an Indian, Chinese, Indonesian?
5. Conversation-Sharing our day’s news and learning to ask other family members good questions is the basis of effective conversation and can be practiced at the table. Of course, no cell phones should be allowed at the dinner table including those of the parents! Dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than reading aloud to a child! Researchers counted the number of rare words – those not found on a list of 3,000 most common words – that the families used during dinner conversation. Young kids learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks aloud. Kids who have a large vocabulary read earlier and more easily.
Question: What good questions do you use to stimulate conversation with your family?
6. Comedy- Adding humor and a light-hearted atmosphere to the table will make a big difference. If mealtime is tense and parents are too strict, children will not want to gather at the table. At one point, we stopped reminding one of our teenagers about table manners as the time at the table was becoming unpleasant. One can add in fun games, conversation prompts, or special treats at times, to add to the pleasure of the mealtime.
Question: What do you do with your family that makes meals fun?
7. Current affairs-Parents should take time to discuss some of what is happening in the world with their children. Make sure to only share age-appropriate material and don’t add burdens to your children when they are too young to process them.
Question: What current topics do you think you should be discussing with your children?
8. Culinary skills-Children should be taught to prepare food at an early age. They can make sandwiches, peel vegetables, etc. They should also be encouraged to try different types of food, even if it is just a mouthful so they will be better prepared for the future and not be picky/fussy eaters. There is a lot of research showing that childhood obesity is avoided when families eat healthy food together at the table. We can also add in the word COST, because one’s food budget is reduced when the family eats together at home.
Question: How have you encouraged your children to try new foods?
9. Cleanliness- Children should be taught to help clean up after food preparation and meal time. This is the easiest way to get young children into the habit of helping with household chores.
Question: How do you encourage your children to learn cleanliness?
10. Creativity- Children can help set the table, and be encouraged to add their own creative touch. This is a great opportunity for them to be expressive and prepares them to be great hosts in the future. Parents need to resist the urge to correct them so that they can have space to practice and grow in their ability. Download 10 Simple Tips for Setting the Table e-book at Heartistry.info.
Question: How have your children expressed their creativity at the dinner table? (Please share photos with us.)
11. Celebration- Celebrations give us the opportunity to reinforce truth, add joy and build anticipation for the future. We can celebrate individual accomplishments such as school or sports success and birthdays. National holidays are a great way to add fun and a perfect opportunity to offer hospitality to friends and neighbors. I want to encourage faith communities to grow in the area of celebration. God set many feasts in place for the Children of Israel and these were opportunities for them to gather as a community to reinforce the foundations of their faith in a joyful and meaningful way.
Question:What is your favorite family celebration?
12. Character- Helping our children develop their characters is so important. The table gives them an opportunity to learn service, unselfishness, kindness and so much more. Parents have an opportunity to model good behavior at the table too.
Question:What did you learn at the table that grew your character as a child?
13. Choices- When we have important decisions to make, it is essential to get good counsel. Parents can advise children about choices that need to be made regarding school subjects, situations with friends etc. Parents can also ask children for their input about family matters such as where to go on vacation.
Question: How have you been able to create an atmosphere that is conducive to deep sharing at your table?
14. Conflict resolution- Different members of the family will have varying ideas on many topics and can learn to discuss these issues courteously at the table. There can be the opportunity to debrief difficult situations that occurred during the day and a plan can be made as to the best way to tackle the situation. Parents need to try and resolve any major conflict they are having privately, but it is good for children to observe how parents apologize and offer forgiveness when there is an offense. It is essential for children to learn how to solve conflict correctly at as young an age as possible.
Question: How did your family deal with conflict when you were young?
15. Cross-cultural understanding- I strongly encourage families to invite people from different countries to join them for meals. This provides an opportunity to expand children’s understanding of the world, diffuse racism before it develops (when we know people, we no longer think of them as different from us) and teach them geography in the best possible way.
Question: Who can you invite to the table who feels the most “foreign” to you?
16. Compassion- Jesus teaches us to not only invite those who can invite us back but to welcome the poor and needy to our table. This is probably the most challenging part of true hospitality. Each family needs to think this through for themselves, but inviting a foreign student, elderly person or tired, single mom and her children to join the family meal will teach children to show compassion to others.
Question:Who comes to mind that you can invite? When do you commit to doing so?
17. Communion- The Bible tells us that the first followers of Jesus used to regularly "break bread together in their own homes, eating together with glad and sincere hearts". We can gather around the table and share communion together in a simple and meaningful way. As we do this, we share our hearts and our lives and our relationships grow deeper. Our children need to be included in situations where authentic relationships are being built.
Question: When do you feel the closest to your friends? Is it at the table or when you are doing another activity?
18. Christlikeness- The table is the perfect place for us to naturally talk about our faith, to demonstrate our love and service. Some families have regular devotions at the table, while others just look for spontaneous opportunities and teachable moments to share life-giving truth. It is important that these times are special for the children and not a burden. There are many good resources available that can teach us how to do this effectively.
Question: Does your family do daily devotions? Share your thoughts on this.
How do we practically do this?
In the midst of busy lives, both parents working, crazy schedules for children, it is not easy to prioritize family meals. In fact at times, it takes all we have just to make sure our children don’t starve! So how do we do this?
Commitment- We need to understand the power of the family meal and make it a priority. Sacrifices will need to be made. Parents may have to go to work earlier in the day, cut short their time at the office or choose not to exercise on their way home. Children’s activities may need to be curtailed. It is not necessary for your child to do all the extracurricular activities offered. You will feel the pressure from your peers to have your child super-involved, but resist it. Time with the family will yield much better long term results.
Co-operation- This is not something that just one parent can pull off. Both parents need to work together to make this happen. Make a plan and share the load. Extended family and friends need to come alongside single parents to assist them. A gift certificate to a local restaurant enables the family to go out for a special meal and build memories together.
Consistency/creativity- Some people thrive on regular plans and schedules and will decide that certain days will always be family meal times. This is easier when children are young and becomes increasingly more difficult as children grow older and activities happen in the evening. Work at being as flexible as possible, while also prioritizing time together. Draw on your creativity and plan some out of the box events. Spontaneously decide to all sit in one bed and have breakfast together. Or have an inside picnic on a blanket in the living room. Or enjoy a late night snack around the table before going to bed.
NO condemnation- You may feel as if you have failed in this area, or you don’t think you will be able to succeed with gathering your family together. Give yourself grace. Any growth in the area will have a big impact. Learn from each other. Encourage each other by sharing what works. Get our newsletters so that you can be inspired and instructed. Ask God for help!
Remember that Jesus is busy preparing a place for us and one day we will be sitting at His table!
How did family meal times impact you growing up?
What practical tips do you have to share that would help others to plan and commit to family meal times?
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I spoke at Family Tree Leadership Academy and the recording is here for you to enjoy. The first minute is in Afrikaans, but then I switch over to English!