Sit Down For Dinner, folks!

11 Oct
McFamily at JRDN in Pacific Beach (San Diego)

A quick iPhone pic taken by Rachel before a fancy dinner out.

Bite-sized Portions for My Maidens

McTopics: Family Meal Time – You can do it!

My 15-year-old son recently wrote an essay about the positive influences that have shaped his life. The assignment required that he write a paragraph each about a significant person, place and event/experience.

He asked me to proofread it (“for spelling only,” he reminded me, of former editor of red-pen fame).

I was blessed to the point of tears. He chose to write about his brother, (a freshman in college this year) as his “Who;” playing hockey and attending an annual week-long Christian summer camp as his experiences; and our dining room table as The Place. It was the kind of essay that makes you so proud you want to tell everyone about it (and I guess that’s what I’m doing, right?).

Then, a week after the heart-swelling essay, a study from Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse concluded that teens who regularly eat with the family are less likely to engage in risky behaviors and more likely to fare better in the adolescent years and beyond. An excerpt from the report:

“This year’s study reinforces the importance of frequent family dinners,” said Joseph A. Califano, Jr., CASA Columbia’s Founder and Chairman and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. “Ninety percent of Americans who meet the medical criteria for addiction started smoking, drinking, or using other drugs before age 18. Parental engagement in children’s lives is key to raising healthy, drug-free kids and one of the simplest acts of parental engagement is sitting down to the family dinner. Seventeen years of surveying teens has taught us that the more often children have dinner with their families the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use drugs.”

For the full report:

There are many times in the parenting journey where we wonder if the things we do make a difference. It seems that the family dinners have.

In our community, we are among a large percentage of people who are involved, educated and dedicated to raising their children to be successful. There’s nothing unique about that. Apparently, however, our regular old family meals together are one of the things that do set us apart from about half of the other families in our country. Life is busy, kids and parents are going in several directions, and eating is often done alone, in front of the TV, in the car or with teen friends rather than family members.

Family dinner is sacred in our house. We are not legalistic about it, but we are dedicated to making it happen on a regular basis.

We both grew up having family dinners, even if they weren’t what you might imagine. My husband’s family rarely ate before 8 pm and those dinners were spirited. My dad worked for a professional baseball team, so sometimes our “family dinner” consisted of him coming down from the Press Box to our seats behind the visiting dugout, enjoying a hot dog or a hot chocolate, and asking us about our day, schoolwork, etc. Thus, it’s probably not surprising that we wanted to make this a goal also.

Family of Two: Our family meal tradition was purposeful. And it wasn’t always easy. But from the beginning, even when it was just the two of us, both working full time, we’d sit down to eat at our dining room table – foregoing the TV trays we received as a wedding gift (although those were great for football-watching parties!) TV was off. Phone went to the machine.

Party of 3 and then 4: Once the kiddos arrived, we still made the effort, although sometimes it would mean that we’d pull the baby swing up to the table so bambino could be a part of the dinner, even if it meant constant winding that swing to keep said infant from getting fussy.

Somewhere down the line, when both the boys were of talking age, we added in the conversation starter, “What was the best part of your day?” and made our way around the table, including any guests in our query as well.

These days, we rarely even prompt doing the “best part” query – the conversation just seems to flow around so that everyone reports something significant from the day – be it hilarious, bizarre, frustrating or amazing. The boys linger at the table, dipping community carrot sticks in community Ranch long after the main meal is done. As they’ve gotten older, the conversation occasionally gets a little too “salty,” and so we’ve added the admonition: Civility! Lots of laughs and hilarity ensue, and the boys have been known to arrange their evening plans around dinner so as not to miss it.

But we didn’t get here easily. Sometimes the family dinner (we aim for Sunday-Thursday at home and one family dinner out on the weekend) just isn’t doable because of extra-curriculars, work, meetings, etc. But that’s the exception, rather than the norm. If we have to eat at 5:30 to make it work, so be it. If we have to push it til 8, we’ll do a heavy after-school snack. If one of us (mom or dad) can’t be there, the other makes the dinner sit-down happen. Even if it ends up being a meal out – fancy restaurant or fast food – we still eat it together and we talk to each other. One spring, we had baseball games almost every night of the week between the two boys. The snack stand diet put a temporary kibosh on the home dinners. But the season passed, and we got back to it.

A couple of times last year, when we’d all be going out on a Friday night – the boys to a football game or social event and my husband and I to a movie or dinner – we’d have a family Happy Hour, with appetizers, lemonade slushies for the boys and cocktails for the grownups. And we’d talk about the week behind and the weekend ahead.

A friend once commented (before she knew us well) that it seemed like we really enjoyed our teens. She was right. We really know them, know what’s going on in their lives and the lives of their friends, and they ours.  And maybe that stems from these dinners.

So, if you’re not regularly doing a family meal together, here are a few tips if you would like help starting up your own Family Meal Tradition:

Any Meal Time Will Do: Dinnertime has worked for us in general because my husband’s office is nearby and he sets his own schedule, but I know sometimes career, commutes and kids’ ages preclude delaying dinner until a working parent gets home. There’s always breakfast, or even the option of sitting at the table with the late-arriving family member and chatting while they eat. And remember, as kids get older, they can stay up a bit later, so just because it’s not dinner now, someday, it might be. You can also consider setting up a video chat session for a portion of the dinner so that the missing parent can hear about the family’s day. And there’s always the Milk and Cookies sit down if your kids can handle the sugar and later bedtime.

Any loving adult will do: Whether you are a single-parent home, a sometimes-single-parent home (spouse traveling a lot), a home with grandparents, aunt, uncles — the key is that the family meal includes a loving, caring adult family member who can steer the conversation, listen to the kids, and provide the sympathetic ear. Don’t cancel the meal because there are just two of you!

Any Food Will Do: Extravagant or simple, organic or fast food, the purpose of this sit-down is family connection.  It doesn’t matter who made it or where you eat it, as long as everyone can sit down at the same time and enjoy it, and each other, in community.

No Media: Turn off the TV and either turn off or agree to ignore all phones. Once in awhile we’ll break this rule if there’s a big playoff game on TV – but we still pause it while we pray together and for the first 10 minutes or so of dinner, just to check in with each other. Often there’s the temptation to look something up online or on the iPhone when the discussion hits a question (Sometimes we resist the urge, but sometimes we don’t) We’ve often said we need to make a list of things to look up later!

Conversation Starters: As I mentioned, we always did “best part of the day” highlights, but I know some people do best and worst, Roses and Thorns recaps. Here’s my caution: if you are content to “just listen” to the worst part, without turning it in to an intervention where everyone tells the person what they should have done, go for it. But along with “worst parts,” are often parenting questions, admonitions, and accusations. I’d advise you to keep it zipped when Tommy tells you that the Bully of the school tripped him, other than to say, “Wow, that really stinks.” Later that night, when it’s private and appropriate, bring it up again and go to town on making sure that the Bully got his just desserts! You could also do a “What was weird or wacky,” roundtable, or pick up a book of conversation starter topics. (Go ye to Google, my friend!) Let your kids take turns with the conversation starters.

Where to begin: If you’re not regularly having meals as a family, start with one night a week (or one weekend daytime meal) that is usually predictable. Sunday evening works for many, and it’s a great time to review and preview.  Look at your calendar and see if you can identify several dates in the future and commit to them. Your tradition will be unique, but the earlier in your kids’ life you begin, the better the chance you have of making it a permanent, significant part of their sense of family when they are teenagers – and it they are already teenagers, you can still work it out. You will be giving them a several-times-a-week reminder that they belong, that they are part of a something, that come Bullies or drama queens, they will be able to sit amongst loved ones later in the day, share a meal and a story, and know that they are loved.

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