By Anja van den Berg
Getting the whole family around the dinner table at the same time is one of the most challenging parts of working parenthood. Yet, it’s a ritual that stretches much further than merely filling up your kids’ tummies.
According to The Family Dinner Project, a non-profit organisation operating out of Harvard University, kids who eat with their families roughly five days a week exhibit lower levels of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, obesity, and depression. They also have higher grade-point averages, better vocabularies, and more self-esteem.
Although you’d probably like nothing better than sitting down to a hearty and relaxed meal with your family, mealtimes often leave working parents feeling conflicted, stressed and guilty. And you’re not alone: many – if not most – working parents are caught up in the same struggle.
Fortunately, there’s a better way forward, says Daisy Wademan Dowling, founder and CEO of Workparent, a consulting firm that provides solutions and training to working parents and to the organisations that employ them.
Dowling recommends using these tactics to tame the logistics, reduce your sense of strain and enjoy your meals together:
- Take the pressure off
Chances are when you think “family dinner” you imagine hearty, hot, home-cooked meals, served every night. Recast your expectations and take some of that pressure off. Maybe you commit to gathering for a meal once a week, every Friday evening, for example. Or maybe it’s a family breakfast instead of dinner if school and work schedules make that easier. It’s fine if the meal itself involves the microwave, leftovers, or paper plates. Perfection isn’t the aim ─ eating together regularly is the goal.
- Give everyone a job
The more each family member contributes to the family meal, the more likely they are to enjoy it, take pride in it, and experience a sense of ownership. While you’re preparing dinner, have your preschooler put the paper napkins on the table or have your teenager make the salad. Once in a while, you can even let the kids prepare the meal themselves.
- Keep it happy
For the family meal to work, it needs to feel like a shelter from the experiences of the day and like a reward instead of a task. So, keep things positive and use this time to share any good news: achievements at school, weekend plans or an upcoming visit from Grandma. Start comments with upbeat lead-ins such as “the funniest thing happened today …” Try to avoid questioning the kids about yesterday’s geometry test ─ let them decide what they want to talk about.
- Keep it brief
For children of any age, end-of-day events can be tough. They’re tired, they have shorter attention spans than adults do … thus, good behaviour fades fast. Family meals don’t have to be long to have an impact. It’s the regularity and quality that count. When starting your new routine, aim for just 15 minutes around the table. That timing will naturally lengthen as your kids grow up ─ and as the practice of connecting over shared meals becomes an essential, treasured habit for every member of the family.
In any week, there are at least 16 possible times for families to eat together: 7 breakfasts, 7 dinners, and two weekend lunches. In addition, a night-time snack when parents and children take a break together can be another chance to connect and share precious time. The goal is not to achieve a magic number but to find as many opportunities as you can – and to make the most of them.
The Family Dinner Project: https://thefamilydinnerproject.org/resources/faq/
Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2019/05/how-working-parents-can-make-family-meals-happen
Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/tip/2019/06/working-parents-you-can-make-family-meals-happen