Google+ Authentic Parenting: The Importance Of Family Dinner (rerun)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Importance Of Family Dinner (rerun)

Over the weekend, my little family sat together at the table to enjoy several meals together. I deeply enjoy when my family is sat down around the table, but it doesn’t happen too often. Breakfast I eat alone, since my husband doesn’t eat in the morning and my daughter eats much later than I do (she takes bubuh before she gets up, so she’s not hungry until at about 9AM). At lunchtime, my daughter is generally asleep by the time my husband arrives and when dinnertime comes, she is too busy playing and running around, which often means that my husband and I have to eat separately - because one of us has to join in the fun.

Family dinner is generally a much appreciated moment in families, and sadly, this often brings in some coercion.

Image: Beverly & Pack on Flickr
Let’s look at why family dinners have gotten so important.
During the day the whole family is outside the house, so dinnertime is the only moment in the day that a family can be together.
We have been completely brainwashed by the “three meals a day” advice
Most families cook dinner in the evening, so they feel like it’s disrespectful to the cook if some members of the family decide not to partake
Shared food tastes better
We have grown accustomed to the idea that some rules - no matter how arbitrary - need not be broken

Together time
For un-/homeschooling family, this is an argument that doesn’t really apply, because generally at least one parent spends a big chunk of the day with the kids. Even when children do attend school, one can ask himself if sitting around the table because they have to is the kind of interaction a parent wants with his child. Wouldn’t it be a better idea to let go of a forced family dinner and join in the children’s play after eating? Forcing someone to join in a collective activity is not Authentic communication, or genuine togetherness. It is artificial. So if togetherness is what you are looking for - seek out your child, instead of forcing him to be with you.
Then how will they learn good manners at the table? How will they learn to appreciate shared meals?
Simply by observing yours. And it’s not as if they will never share a meal with you. If you give them the freedom to choose, you might be surprised at the frequency of shared meals, and you will grow to enjoy the ones you do share even more, because they are Authentic (and sometimes rare). As children grow up, they can be more inclined to eating together and might grow to value shared dinner as much as you.

Three meals a day?
I have said it before and I will say it again: the three meals a day advice is something that has been disproved over and over again. Yet it is a persistent bastard for numerous reasons - reasons on which I will not elaborate for the sake of the length of this post. In big lines, it is best to eat when one is hungry. Your family member will not all be hungry at the same time of night, and it would be quite torturous to deny a hungry child food just because you’re having dinner in an hour. For a small child especially hunger is very much a NOW thing, and their conception of time is different from yours. So if you tell them not to eat NOW, you might just tell them they won’t eat period.
As children grow up, their grasp of time does change, but that doesn’t mean their biological rhythm does, neither does it mean that they will not be ‘busy‘ when dinnertime arrives. Their busy should be respected as much as you expect them to respect yours.

I think the idea of children being disrespectful to the cooking parent is a big can of worms. I won’t go into this as deeply as I would like because I have been lengthy already and this post is not nearly finished.
First of all respect is something we cannot demand. It is something you can receive, but never by force. You needn't cook dinner every night to gain your child’s respect. You just need to treat him with the same respect you feel you deserve.
But maybe this whole respect thing is just a cover up. Maybe what you are really looking for is praise, and you might feel praised if everyone gathers around the table to eat you delicious concoctions.
I bet they are delicious and I bet you did spend time on them. But here you need to internalize your feeling of self worth. Cooking something delicious for yourself is just as important as cooking it for someone else. You don’t need an audience for validation, you can acquire that yourself.

Breaking the rules
Yes, you might get weird looks when friends come over and your child is playing while you have dinner. They might even remark it. But what is more important? Your family’s happiness or wether your friend thinks you’re crazy (probably they already do anyway). If you choose to go a different path, you’ll be raising eyebrows along the way. That doesn’t mean what you do is wrong.



  1. I enjoyed this post. I feel like it debunks the idea of the all-powerful-family-meal. If you are spending time interacting as a family during the rest of the day it's not so important whether or not you sit around the table and watch each other chew.

    My almost 2 year old grazes throughout the day. So at dinnertime he has a few bites then plays. It's often the only time when my husband and I get to sit down together and talk which is awesome!

  2. I like this article! I find myself occasionally feeling guilty over our lack of "regular family dinners". As business owners, we often (and have for the last ten years) eat meals on the go, in the warehouse, at the office, with the kids, without the kids, while doing something else, homemade, leftovers, and more often than not, takeout (though we do try to always stick with the "healthier" take out like sushi & Whole Foods).
    We've always kept weird hours, but always make time for family time - even if its creating games like running through the warehouse. I agree with you - time spent playing with the kids is FAR more important than enforced family meal time. I'd much rather grab some fruit & eat with the kids in the car on the way to the office to play with daddy for an hour than I would preparing, cooking, and hoping everyone is in a good mood and can get together at the same time and feel like sitting & eating quietly together.
    Coming from a different place (obviously we're not homeschooling), I still find your article really valuable and comforting. Following the child is never a bad idea - when it comes to education, food, play...

  3. Here, here! We don't often get to sit down together as a family, and sometimes I feel pulled towards guilt for that, given all that's out there about the importance of the Family Dinner. But I just remind myself that for families where both parents are working, the children are in school and have homework in the evening (and maybe extracurricular activities in between or after), the Family Dinner may be the only time they get to sit down together and talk. What pressure they must feel to come up with stimulating conversation! ;-)

  4. Wow! Have not thought about it in such a way. We also do not force our toddler to sit down when she doesn't want to sit for the duration of dinner time. She also eats a little bit before the time, and whenever she wants!
    Now I won't feel guilty ever again... ;-)


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