We can all agree that a lot of undue pressure is put upon working parents. However, there is one commonly cited parenting pressure that science backs up: the importance of family dinners. Sitting down and eating together as a family has an extensive list of proven benefits—and not just for the kids! When done regularly, it makes parents’ lives better, too.
Family dinners are proven to promote larger vocabularies in small children; studies have shown that dinner conversation boosts vocabulary more quickly and effectively than reading. Additionally, engaging in familial dialogue fosters a sense of connectedness between family members and teaches young children how to listen, wait their turn, and express their opinions clearly.
These skills translate easily into the school system and beyond. Kids who learn early on how to participate pro-socially in a conversation without monopolizing it do better later in life in a wide variety of social, educational, and professional situations.
When the whole family sits down for dinner, everyone eats healthier. Countless studies have shown that making your own food, as opposed to dining out or eating a frozen or precooked meal, is by far the healthier choice. It’s also a great opportunity to teach kids about good health, cooking, and the science of baking.
When kids take part in regular family meals and are taught to cook early in life, research shows that they eat fruits and veggies more frequently and soda and fried foods less often. They are also more likely to continue to eat healthfully when they move out on their own. They’re also less likely to develop eating disorders or become overweight or obese.
Developmental / Mental Health Benefits
Researchers have also studied the effect of family dinners on every parent’s worst nightmare: engagement in high-risk behaviors as teenagers. These include smoking, binge-drinking, marijuana use, truancy, eating disorders, violence, and sexual activities. What did they find?
Regular family dinners lowered the risk of all of these behaviors; it also helped children who were victims of bullying (both online and in person) bounce back more quickly, and lowered risk for depression and suicidal ideation. Kids who have strong relationships with their parents—for instance, relationships in which communication, family time, and togetherness are highly emphasized—are more likely to be positive, well-behaved, and experience less stress.
Notably, the same increase in positivity and decrease in stress was also found in parents! If you have a positive, communicative relationship with your children, your home environment is bound to be a lot happier. Plus, you’ll be more productive during working hours because you won’t be as worried about what your kids are up to or how they’re doing; they’ll have already told you!
But how do parents find the time?
One concern many working parents have about family dinners is logistical in nature—do any of the following scenarios sound familiar to you?
- You prep the kids’ meals first; if they’re younger, maybe it’s a kid-friendly version of the meal you intend to make for yourself. Then, you feed the kids. When they finish eating, you clean up the table (and the kids) so it’s not a mess. Finally, you prep your own meal, or eat what’s left of the kids’ version.
- You cook a full, healthy meal, only to find out the kids won’t eat it; to avoid the oncoming tantrum, you make them something quick and easy while the food you made originally gets cold. The children finish eating before you get to the table.
- You get everyone to the table at the same time. You serve food to the kids—maybe actively feed the littlest ones, if they’re still in the high chair—and run back and forth throughout the meal for additional water, milk, or other items. By the time you manage to sit down, the kids are finished eating and want to go play.
It’s pretty likely that at least one of these situations has happened to you—maybe even this week! It can help to have a part-time nanny or mother’s helper to streamline the process. He or she can begin meal prep before you get home from work and help out throughout the meal, by cleaning up the kids, taking dishes to the dishwasher, or anything else your children might need. This will allow you to relax and focus on bonding with your children.
Remember, the most important part of family dinners isn’t the “dinner” part—any mealtime that works best for your family will do! The idea is to take the time to sit down and really pay attention to the conversation. Dinners have been found to be the most reliable way for families to connect and find out what’s happening in everyone’s life; if your family doesn’t have time in the evenings, why not try family breakfasts?