No meal is more important than the one where families eat together

By Dorothy Firestone, Special to the Jewish Light

When I was a child, every dinner was a family gathering.  What I mainly remember of those meals is that my father shared the chicken legs with me. (This was when chickens were sold whole, not in parts, with only two legs.)  I have forgotten what side dishes came with the chicken, but I remember the sharing.

When our children were young, dinners were relatively peaceful, considering the fact that arguments were not permitted and the children had to eat their vegetables.  (They grew up to love vegetables.) We learned something of their day at school, but mainly, they were interested in the food.  They would look at a heaping platter of chicken and ask, “Is this all you have?”  Or, “What’s for dinner tomorrow night?”  

Anticipation was high.

Recently, I met a young woman at an organization luncheon and, as is my habit, I brought our conversation around to families dining together.  “We never have a meal together,” she said.  Her husband, a school principal, was often busy late afternoons and early evenings and her three children had sports practices at the same times.  Consequently, they never ate together.

Then she told me of her daughter’s reaction to dinner at a friend’s home. “Mom,” she said, “the whole family ate dinner together, and they used real napkins!”

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We examined her family’s week, day by day.  The only time they could all gather at the table was Sunday lunch.  “Perfect,” I said.  “Once a week is better than nothing.”

Indeed, what is the value of the family meal for children? I asked my children and grandchildren that very question.  What follows are their answers:

• Dinner together was a time to share the day’s highs and lows, a time to help clear and wash dishes, a time to try new foods and a time to share. That artichoke heart was cut into eight pieces and everyone got two.

• Friday night Sabbath dinner was always the most memorable.  We had to be at the table by 6 p.m. with clean hands.  My mother made enough for leftovers the next day:  brisket, mashed potatoes, green beans and a great dessert.

• We would discuss what was going on in our lives outside the home.  It was a nice time to turn off the television and social media and just connect with one another.

• It was a time to learn table manners from parents and grandparents who love you.

• Now that I live in another city, I get together with family who live there and friends once a week.  It’s a time to be together stress free with good food, like a family meal.

• We played games at the table that helped us to learn about each other in a fun way when we just wanted to eat.

• All those family dinners led me to the value of sitting down and eating with people I know and love.

The benefits of something as personal and individual as a family meal are difficult to substantiate, but go to the internet and see what comes up when you key in “Importance of Family Meals”:

• Study after study confirms that the number one predictor of life satisfaction comes from spending time with people you care about and who also care about you. What better place than the dining room table?

• Sitting down together for a meal, for 45 minutes to an hour, with no television, no texting and no phoning is an opportunity for children to learn something of their families, not to mention their parents. 

• Those who know a lot about their family background are more resilient when they encounter difficulties.  They have a sense of being part of a larger family when they know that their grandfather or great grandfather came to America as a poor youngster and struggled to succeed. 

  • Everyone eats healthier.
  • Children are less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs.
  • You and your children talk more.
  • You are more likely to learn of a serious problem with a child.
  • Family meals help children do better in school and might help them get into college.

And how can we make family meals something to look forward to?

  • Offer favorite foods, one child’s at a time.
  • Post the menu.  Get everyone excited about the family meal.
  • Use a crock-pot to have dinner ready when everyone gets home.
  • Every meal need not be a home-cooked one.  It can feature carry-in pizza or be eaten in a restaurant. 
  • Put flowers on the table. Light candles. Use real napkins.
  • Find a time—breakfast, lunch or dinner—when the family can come together to eat.   Studies say twice a week family meal is good, five times is better.   The goal is to get everyone to the table to spend quality time togeher.