For many families, the family dinner is simply a thing of the past. While many of us grew up breaking bread together across the dinner table, sharing stories of our day (or was that only in television shows?) the reality is, many families aren't able to all sit down for dinner together every night.
Life has become increasingly busy for today's family. Many have two working parents who are juggling work, kids and various responsibilities, and often sitting down together for a meal is something that just doesn't happen. Extracurricular activities are often scheduled during what used to be the dinner hour, and lots of time we're feeding our kids in the car on the way to their next sports, music or arts lesson.
We know the benefits of sitting down and eating dinner together as a family are many. The Washington Post states that conversations held over the family dinner can often help a child's vocabulary more than their bed time story. Dinner at home typically means your child is eating better than what they may be eating in the car on their way to practice, and having that nightly ritual of family bonding often means closer relationships between parents and kids.
The benefits to children who eat dinner regularly with their family are many. But what's a family to do if they simply can't find the time to get everyone together for a family dinner? Anne Fishel is a Harvard Medical School associate clinical professor of psychology and co-founder of the Family Dinner Project, and while the family dinner is ideal, she has other suggestions as to how families can bond together even when they have a busy schedule.
Fishel explains that while dinners are the best option of meals to share together as a family since they tend to be the longest, they definitely aren't the only option for the busy family. “When I work with families, I tell them, ‘How about having one great meal or one good-enough meal and see where that takes you,’" Dr. Fishel told the NY Times. “The secret sauce of family dinner is the conversation and the games and the fun at the table.” Still, that 'secret sauce' can happen during other times of day than just dinner.
One suggestion is the late night family snack. We all agree that sometimes schedules for meals just doesn't work. Parents may work shifts, kids may have other activities, and it's hard to find a common meal time. But even sharing a late night snack of hot chocolate or popcorn or whatever you choose that get's everyone sitting around the dinner table is a great option when those family meals aren't possible. The "family table" doesn't have to be just about dinner.
Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a professor and head of the division of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota explained to the NYTimes that sometimes we overthink the family dinner.
“You can have sandwiches, or you can put out carrot sticks and hummus. I think sometimes people think if they’re going to eat together it needs to be a big, home-cooked meal. Make it simple in terms of what will work for your current situation.” That includes a basic late night snack.
The importance of the family meal is really to encourage communication between the family and have some bonding time with your kids, and experts agree that when you can't share a meal together, even spending some time on a late night snack is beneficial to both parents and kids.