How often should families eat together?
How often should families gather for a communal meal? Such a good question and the answer may differ from family to family. It’s more about the quality. With couples, for example, there is a lot of research on how much quality time they need to maintain a healthy marriage.
I have seen some studies that suggest that in order to maintain a healthy relationship, couples need at least 15 hours of quality time a week. Other studies suggest at least two hours a week.
There’s a big difference between two and 15 hours.
The family is the same. Some families are going to need more time together than the family next door. It also depends on what’s happening in each family as the challenges and demands can be different.
But quantity is also important. The most important thing is that you are meeting as a family and sharing each other’s lives. I guess no relationship can survive without an investment of time. If you have a pet dog, you’re going to walk it regularly and take it to the vet (to maintain its health).
Families are no different. They don’t only need quality time, but they need enough quality time. How do you know when your family is not getting enough quality time? There are certain tell-tale signs. People start to get niggly, slightly resentful and irritable towards one another.
When we feel connected, we’re more patient. When we feel connected, we’re more forgiving. We’re more compassionate with each other. Sometimes that can be a better gauge for sharing a meal in terms of a specific number of days or hours a week with each other.
What can really help families is being open to the opportunities when both parents are around. So, in my house we prioritise our family meal times if we’re both going to be home. We’re going to have dinner as a family because we want to maximise those opportunities when they arrive.
It’s about setting an expectation that when both parents are going to be home, you will have dinner as a family. Even when one parent can’t be there you still want to have dinner as a family. It’s about building the relationship between children and their parents, even in the absence of a parent or a child.
What I communicate to my children is that when one child is missing, mum and dad are thinking about you as well. Everyone in this family is important, and if someone’s missing that’s significant.
There are times that trying to make everyone come to dinner might make matters worse. The way to respond to that is to be compassionate. It may not be a whole family argument, but one person in the family who’s had a bad day or they’re feeling particularly sensitive. They blow up and storm off to their room.
The best thing is to let that person have space. We all have bad days. It’s important to follow up with that person when they and you are calm, “I know today was really hard, but we really missed you during mealtime. You’re an important member of our family.”
The family fallouts are actually an opportunity for connection if you take the right approach. Go kindly, go gently.
Families are always adjusting and changing. Sometimes kids don’t want to join a family meal. It’s a healthy sign because they start to form their own ideas about the type of life they would like to lead. Young adults will at some stage spread their wings, and they’ll get jobs and girlfriends or boyfriends. They need that autonomy.
So, work out the best times that you can get together as a family each week. In our house it’s Monday night. There’s an expectation that we will get together at least one night a week; mum, dad and the children.
Sharing family meals together is also about role modelling and what parents hope their children’s families will one day look like. The hope is their children will recognise the importance of quality time and spending time together sharing a meal. It’s also laying the foundation that’s will help them build healthy families in the future.
We also need to recognise that family traditions change over time. Traditions are always tricky and so it’s important that people keep good communication alive.
Some years back Karen and I went to Italy with our children for the World Meeting of Families. We had some amazing experiences in parishes that have established regular gatherings with their local communities. On a Friday evening they come together and share a meal.
Such a lovely experience for our children to see ‘community’ in that way. We all need community around us. I’m not enough of a man to be able to meet all my children’s needs all the time and to be a role model for each of their different personalities and styles, hopes and aspirations. I need to surround my sons with lots of really good men and women. And that can be achieved by being part of a community and celebrating meals together.
A young person who’s visiting from overseas is spending time with our family. We benefit just as much from having him in our home because it’s about building community, which in turn helps our children to grow and develop.
The research is pretty unequivocable. One of the most important predictors of humans flourishing is through strong relationships.
We’ve talked a lot about sharing meals, but the ‘before’ and ‘after’ is also important. When it comes to preparing a meal, it’s great to engage family members before the meal starts. For example, chatting with your children when they are chopping up carrots or the potatoes. They are working as a team to contribute to family life … and to the family meal.
The other thing is to review a meal afterwards and reflect on how the dinner went. I really enjoyed cleaning up after my son’s recent 21st party.
I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to be together with the people I love on the night because we were all busy but cleaning up afterwards allowed for downtime and reflection. I find there’s also something quite spiritual about taking something that is dirty, i.e., dirty cups, plates, and cutlery and cleaning them.
Isn’t that God at work in our lives? We (as humans) mess up and make mistakes, and yet God is somehow calling us back into a relationship. There’s something beautifully reflective and spiritual about that process.
This is an edited version of a Figuring out Families podcast with Derek Boylen, titled When families should gather at the Dinner Table. The full podcast and other Dinner Table podcasts can be accessed at: The Dinner Table Podcast– for gathering, sharing, being family – Majellan Media
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