Whatever happened to dinner?

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Tips on 21st century style family dinners

by Melodie Davis

With overscheduled kids involved in extracurricular activities three to five evenings a week, parents working a three to 11 shift or until 7:00 or 8:00 p.m., who has time for a 50s-style family dinner with Dad carving roast beef? It isn’t going to happen.

And yet children, families, churches and the whole community—even the larger society—benefit from frequent family dinners. The Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse of Columbia University, N.Y., has frequently studied the importance of meals as a nurturing environment for children. A 2009 study found that compared to teens who have frequent family dinners (five or more times per week), those who have infrequent family dinners (fewer than three per week) are twice as likely to use tobacco or marijuana and twice as likely to expect to try drugs in the future. Other studies show that kids living in homes with frequent shared mealtimes get better grades.

What are children getting when they sit down to a meal, besides the meat and potatoes—or salad and stir-fry? On a good day, children get attention that leads to parents and kids who are more involved with each other’s lives. Children learn to have conversation. They may get laughter and precious family bonding time. Usually they get better nutrition.

Dinner may also be the only time the family gathers to pray. Somehow that simple daily act—especially if you’ve been arguing or grouchy right before—forces families to change gears and perhaps find peace amid squabbles.

How can you make it work? Whether Mom, Dad or the kids cook, here’s a half dozen starter tips:

  • Start with something manageable. Can’t manage dinner six or seven nights a week? Aim for three or four—and don’t think you’ve failed if that doesn’t always work.Be flexible in timing and menu. Moms I’ve talked to since writing Whatever Happened to Dinner say they aim for anytime between 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. according to what is going on that day for each family member. Regarding menu, sometimes an evening meal can be pancakes or even cereal. If you have to eat on the run, pack a quick picnic sometimes rather than buying fast food. Eat at Mom or Dad’s office or in a park close to the ball fields.
  • Planning is half the job. Virginia found that involving her children in meal planning, allowing them to each have a meal when they can choose what’s for supper, helps keep her organized. The kids, ages seven and 10, love having a say.Make it fun. Steve and Leann have “Supper Surprise Night” when they draw slips of paper from a box with various ideas for “mixing it up”—eating on a blanket on the family room floor, eating without utensils, having dessert first, playing restaurant, etc.
  • Focus on the conversational menu, too. Don’t bring up bad grades, finances or other mood wreckers. Let each family member tell the best thing about the day. One Sunday morning the youth at our church were leading worship focusing on the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc. (Gal. 5:22). In one skit, the youth gave one-line definitions of love. Andrew said, “Love is my mom making dinner.” I can’t think of a better way to summarize what family meals can mean.

 

Melodie Davis has written the syndicated newspaper column “Another Way” since 1987 and is the author of 11 books on family living, including Whatever Happened to Dinner? Recipes and Reflections for Family Mealtime, published in 2010 by Herald Press. Davis lives in Harrisonburg, Va., with her husband; the couple has three adult daughters.

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