My friends don’t eat nice dinners together like we do. I’m glad I live in this family. My 12-year-old cousin’s words to his mom spoke volumes to me about what children value. Though still a teenager myself, this snippet of truth served to shape how I would one day approach family life. Following in my aunt’s footsteps, I chose in that very moment, to give sharing meals together the highest of priorities.
Down the road a bit, I discovered that one-third of families often eat less than three meals a week together. However, families (couples, too!) benefit most from family meals if they occur more frequently during the week. Almost 80% of teens said they very much enjoy eating meals with their family and eating at least one meal together each day rates as very important to them.
The power of shared meals comes from the way the experience touches our senses. The sight of red pasta sauce as it sits next to green salad tantalizes. The enticing aroma of spices wafting under our nose causes anticipation of the oh-so-amazing flavor soon to meet with our tongue. The feel of crusty garlic bread in our hand increases the fun. And, sounds of good conversation, peppered with warm laughter, makes it all add up to a very memorable experience.
Moreover, research reveals that consistently doing dinner together offers many benefits for both adults and children. Among them:
Sharing meals together offers us the opportunity to give of ourselves to each other in a relaxed setting. We can maximize our time together by treating family meals as a time to connect with each other and communicate about our life happenings. We turn off the TV. Giving each member a chance to engage in conversation helps them to feel cared for by the family and also to cultivate respect for each member.
Using dinnertime as a time to discipline defeats this purpose, but parents certainly can monitor the who, what, where and when of their children’s activities. If someone experiences a problematic situation, let’s talk about it over dinner. We’re family and we’re in this together. A number of studies provide evidence that doing dinner together creates a protective factor over the lives of children and teens. Decreased risk of substance use and delinquency, along with heightened academic performance and overall well-being stand out as some of the positive outcomes of shared family meals.
Doing dinner together provides the opportunity to transmit values from one generation to another. I almost always serve stuffed flank steak with scalloped potatoes, pickled beets and green salad on Christmas. My family has come to expect it. If we’re not planning to dine out for a family member’s birthday, I prepare their favorite dish. I added this practice from my mother-in-law’s home. And, because both my husband and I have a strong German heritage, German foods have a special place on our table. The sharing of traditions in meals provides a sense of unity in the family. This leads to a greater sense of identity for the members.
Traditions extend beyond food choices. Saying grace together before a shared meal tells a child that their family values a common faith practice. Also, the expectation that family meals will take place according to a fairly regular schedule serves to increase a child’s sense of security. When my own son reached about the same age, he echoed my cousin’s earlier declaration. Then, I recognized anew the message that fell as a gift from heaven years ago.
It almost goes without saying that doing dinner together encourages healthier eating habits. Adults can model making good food choices and eating moderate portion sizes. Several studies show that family meals often include increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, grains and other healthful foods. At the same time, research links family meals with decreased consumption of sugary drinks, fried and fatty foods, and less healthy alternatives.
Here’s one of my easy recipes that’s sure to warm both tummies and hearts. Enjoy!
Spicy Roman Chicken Pasta
6 to 8 ounces mostaccioli, penne or other favorite pasta
2 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, cut into ¾-inch chunks
½ cup chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 can (15 ounces) kidney or black beans, rinsed and drained
1 ½ cups chopped tomato
¾ cup+ picante sauce
¼ cup shredded fresh basil leaves or 1 teaspoon dry basil
Grated parmesan cheese
Cook pasta according to package directions; drain. While pasta is cooking, cook chicken, onion and garlic in oil in a large skillet, stirring occasionally, until chicken loses its pink color. Add beans, tomatoes, picante sauce and basil; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 4 to 5 minutes or to desired consistency, stirring occasionally. Add pasta; mix well. Serve with cheese and additional picante sauce. Makes 3 to 4 servings.