Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Family Dinner Dilemma

Family Dinners are touted as one of the most powerful rituals to make sure your kids stay off drugs and alcohol, do well in school, and avoid eating disorders, along with a number of other benefits. So, how guilty am I supposed to feel that our family does not always have dinner all together 100% of the time?

We always have dinner together as a family on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, both Friday nights and for Saturday lunch. We also have dinner together on Sunday nights. We try really hard to have dinner together one week night each week. More often than that doesn't seem to be consistently possible.

It's not that I don't cook or that we eat take out every night. We do eat at home almost every day, but not all five of us together. I usually feed the girls (or to be completely honest, some nights our babysitter feeds them), dinner around 6:00 p.m. At least two to three evenings a week, one of us is still working at 6 p.m. Dinner much later than that doesn't seem to work well for the kids and bedtime.

I suppose if family dinners are as important as some studies suggest, we could give the kids a snack around 6:00 p.m., and then dinner around 8:00 p.m., but I am pretty sure that would be at the expense of the five of us playing together and reading together between 7:30 PM and 8:30 PM. I am sure that the girls (ages 10, 8 and 5) shouldn't be going to sleep any later in order to eat together. There are as many studies about the importance of enough sleep as there are about the importance of the family dinner!

How many times a week do you have to have dinner as a family to not feel guilty? The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University found that: Teenagers who eat with their families less than three times a week are more likely to turn to alcohol, tobacco and drugs than those who dine with their families five times a week. Does that mean that if we have dinner together four times a week, we are doing okay?

I really like the article, "The Guilt-Trip Casserole: The Family Dinner" from the New York Times. It talks about the length some parents go to in order to have a family dinner. One mom apparently leaves for work at 4:00 a.m. each day specifically so she can be home in time for the Family Dinner. The author asks the question, "But as parents go to ever more breathless effort, or feel ever more guilt-ridden, are we becoming too literal-minded about "family dinner"?

I hope so!


  1. Really there are two issues. One, to teach your children healthy eating habits and, two, spending time together.

    The reason to eat together in case one, is to be sure that your children are eating their food -- not just skipping the veges for instance. And that they are developing good table manners (sitting - not standing, not talking with their mouthful, etc.). It's not really important to eat with them everyday to be certain that these things are happening as they should. But you should definitely spend some meals together. And check their plates before they dump their wastes :)

    In case two -- spending time together. It sounds like you already have a nightly activity that you spend with your girls. The reading and play time allow the to develop a close relationship with you. Many studies -- like the one you cite, do not consider time outside of dinner spent with children.

    For instance, my parents staggered their work day so that my dad could be home in the mornings to get us off to school, and my mother in the afternoon to pick us up. We rarely ate dinner with my dad. But I don't think I could be any closure to him if I had. He spent a lot of quality time with me -- as did my mother. They both made sure to develop their relationship with us. And -- by the way -- they kept us both activity in extracurricular activities that kept us to busy to get into trouble. That has a much greater success rate than dinner together.

  2. Interesting - I have often wondered whether there is real value in "family meal time" or whether the truth is that families that are closer and more "functional" (as opposed to disfunctional) naturally would try to eat together when possible. I think the last paragraph of Dara's comment is a good example of my alternative interpretation of the data. Either way, it can't hurt!

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