A teacher once told me about a group of year 4 children he took on camp. As they sat down for dinner, he realised some of those children had never eaten at a dinner table before. They spent their meal times with their plates on their knees watching television.
These children and their families were missing out on something really important. In her study of family mealtimes, Dr Huntley (1) identifies three primary benefits from regular family meals: improved nutrition and eating habits, improved social behaviour among children, and improved relationships between family members. Dietician, Becky Hand (2) says we should have family mealtimes because home prepared meals are usually more nutritious and healthy. Matthew Gillman (3) concludes that eating family dinners is associated with healthful dietary intake patterns, including more fruits and vegetables, less fried food and soft drink.
The National Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Colombia University also encourages families to eat dinner together. In their research, they consistently found a relationship between children who have family mealtimes and a decreased risk of illicit drug use, drinking alcohol and smoking. Dr Huntley concludes that ‘global research and opinion indicates that if families eat regular meals together it can improve family communication, the nutritional, cultural, gastronomic education of children and the development of family traditions, bonds and rituals.’ (p. 6).
Most importantly, regular family mealtimes give families the opportunity to share their faith lives together. Deuteronomy 6 is a reminder to parents that we are to walk in the way that God has commanded us and keep His commandments in our hearts. We are to ‘teach them diligently to our children’ when we sit at home, when we walk along the road, when we lie down and when we get up (Deuteronomy 6:7). Sitting at home over a meal provides a valuable opportunity for parents to naturally weave their daily walk with family conversation.
Family mealtimes provide a time when social media and other technology can be put aside, and conversations can take place. Children and parents can share the highs and the lows of their day and reflect on how they walked in the way that God has commanded. Family meals also provide a setting for reading the Bible and praying together. When my children were young we always read the Bible and prayed between our main course and dessert. There was always the promise that when we finished praying there’d be something special, even if it was just a piece of fruit. As the children got older we stopped the promise of dessert, but the prayer continued. These times continue to be special times of being with God as a family. When family friends or relatives visit they are also invited to join in the time of prayer and Bible reading.
In his research on American Christian teenagers, Kenda Dean (4) emphasises the importance of parents modelling their faith to their children through conversations, prayer, Bible reading and serving. The family dinner provides one place for this modelling to occur. Of course, this doesn’t mean family meals are always places of meaningful and caring conversations; sometimes our children are cranky and disagreeable. Sometimes parents are too! Work commitments, conflicting parent schedules, after school activities and long commutes are also barriers to eating meals together.
However, family mealtimes are worth working for. If you can’t imagine finding time to eat dinner with the family, eating breakfast together may be a better time for you. Or it might be that one night a week is all that can be set aside for your family to be together. If this is the case, set aside the whole evening, so that you can eat together and do some activity after dinner. If you are already eating together every night, you could become more deliberate about the conversations you have and the things you do at the table. Wherever your family is at, making mealtimes count as you help your children walk the journey of faith will be worth it.
- Huntley, R. (2008). White Paper: Because family mealtimes matter.
- Hand, B. (2013). The benefits of eating together: The family who eats together stays together. Retrieved from http://www.sparkpeople.com/resource/nutrition_articles.asp?id=439
- Gillman, M. W., Rifas-Shiman, S. L., & Frazier, A. L. (2000). Family dinner and the diet quality among older children and adolescents. Archives of Family Medicine, 9, 235-240.
- Dean, K. C. (2010). Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. New York: Oxford University Press.
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