While conducting a series of parenting presentations at a pre-school, a mother shared her frustration about her children’s eating habits. Her frustration centered around the fact that her children always seem to be hungry. “With the refrigerator right there, they literally eat all the time,” she lamented. I likened her description of her children’s eating habits to cows grazing all day in a pasture! The mother stated that, because of her children’s constant eating, they often picked at their food at mealtime or simply did not eat at all.
As I listened to the mother’s seemingly genuine frustration, I noted several other parents nodding their heads, affirming that they were experiencing the same issue in their homes. I need to note here that the parents in the group were stay-at-home mothers. Wandering to the refrigerator throughout the day is not a problem for children who attend daycare, where snacks are provided according to a schedule (though it could be a problem for families on weekends). As the mother talked, I couldn’t help but think about what my mother said, back in the day, when it came to snacks.
As young children, my siblings and I were not allowed to go to the refrigerator anytime we wanted. If we asked for a snack, a small amount of food eaten between meals, and our mother agreed to it, the snack choice(s) would be selected by her. If the request was made too close to mealtime, the response would be, “No, it’s too close to dinner time.” There would be no discussion because we all knew that no amount of begging, whining, or cajoling would have even the remotest possibility of swaying her. My mother said what she meant and meant what she said.
By eliminating the “grazing” and placing emphasis on mealtime, family dynamics change. Once upon a time, families engaged in 2-3 meals each day (breakfast, lunch and dinner or breakfast and dinner) with the evening meal, typically, the largest meal of the day. Traditionally the largest meal of the day included selections from all food groups (dairy, meat, fruits/vegetables, bread/grains). Popular television shows in the 1950’s and 60’s (i.e. The Andy Griffith Show, Leave it to Beaver....) often depicted the family conversing about the day’s events while enjoying a meal at the dining room table. Since then, as the busyness of daily life escalated to warp speed, family meals began to fall by the wayside along with many valuable lessons that were taught while families were gathered at the table.
The dinner table is typically where children are taught basic table manners: how to eat civilly, not speak with their mouth full, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, keep their elbows off the table and engage in dialog with others. Many children today are quite unfamiliar with these basic courtesies. Sadly, most evenings, only about half of the families in the United States sit down and eat as a family.
Advantages of the family meal do not stop with learning table manners. The benefits go far beyond the challenges of preparation and rallying the troops. Researchers have noted that children who participate in regular family dinners tend to have better nutrition, better grades, better vocabularies and are better behaved. Additionally, they may be less likely to smoke, drink, do drugs, have eating disorders, become depressed or engage in risky sexual activity - all of which are issues that have soared to the forefront of society today.
There’s something else that happens when families regularly gather together around a table for a meal. The practice becomes a ritual. All societies have rituals. Rituals are important because they reinforce beliefs, behaviors, and values. They promote conformity, structure, and a sense of belonging. The ritual of the family meal sends the message to children that there are things in life you can count on. Being able to count on something provides a feeling of safety, stability, and a sense of belonging. Sitting down to a family meal does not necessarily need to be every night and it does not need to be complicated; but it does need to be regular.
Mealtime is also a great way to introduce children to chores. Even very young children can participate in assisting with mealtime. Tasks such as setting and clearing the table, pouring the drinks, sitting out ingredients for food preparation, putting dishes in dishwasher, etc. are all chores that give children a sense of purpose, belonging. and value as a family member.
This uncertain and tumultuous era in which we live is a perfect time to resurrect the family meal. Making time to engage in family meals can build family unity and yield many positive lifelong lessons. There is no time like the present to set a new course. Once children realize that 'no means no' and 'yes means yes,' the begging fades and all are the better for it!
Enjoy your meal!
© Sharon Knapp Lamberth, May 31, 2021