It’s a common saying that the family who eats together, stays together.
However, with long workdays, schoolwork and recreational activities putting a strain on people’s time, family meals are fading and parenting expert Alyson Schäfer says the table needs to be reclaimed.
“I think people need to realize that when they say ‘yes’ to ballet they’re saying ‘no’ to family time,” she says. “When they say ‘yes’ to karate they’re saying ‘no’ to a slower paced evening.”
Family meals provide a chance for members to tune in to each other and turn off electronic devices, says Catherine Moffat of Family Services Toronto.
“There needs to be focused time on talking and being together as opposed to having a TV on in the background,” she says. “So meals can be good for building communication. We need to be more present When it comes to discussion topics at the table, parenting expert Mary Gordon says meal times don’t have to be serious sit-downs.
“You don’t want to be bringing any worries to the children,” she says. “But you do want to bring the essence of who you are.”
Gordon says dinnertime offers a chance for parents and kids to share their feelings by reflecting on their days, which is especially beneficial for young children.
“When the parent shares something vulnerable or funny or that they’re really proud of, or any element of how they felt about their day, what it allows little children to see is that they can reflect on how they felt and it builds children’s resilience,” she says.
Gordon adds children will remember if they laughed at some silly conversations during meals and Schäfer agrees table time should include plenty of playfulness.
“Are you going to be laughing because you’re playing I Spy?” says Schäfer. “Or is it going to be the shared memory of ‘every time we came to the table Johnny got yelled at for his bad manners?’ ”
Family bonding can begin even before the first bite and extend after the final mouthful as Moffat says the whole clan can cooperate in meal planning.
“Whether someone sets the table for everybody, helps makes salad, cooks part of the meal, cleans up afterwards and contributes to the experience of eating together, then everybody has a role in the family meal,” she says.
Schäfer, who is also a psychotherapist, says feeling connected is one of the biggest pillars of mental health.
“Human beings need to know that we’re embedded with other people and that first social unit is a family,” she says. “So functioning together by saying ‘I make the dinner, you clear the table’ is foundational to mental health.”
Schäfer, Moffat and Gordon all agree with having an open table policy in which friends and other family members eat as a group. In Schäfer’s case, her parents took in boarders, so she remembers consistently having extra guests at the table.
“Your parents teach you how to be social,” she says. “I don’t think it needs to be ‘our little family of 4.’ I think we’re way too self-absorbed in our own little family unit.”
The timing of the dining should also be flexible, says Moffat.
“If dinner is not realistic, it can be a Saturday or a Sunday morning brunch,” she says. “Families can make it more special with more than just cereal.”
Moffat recalls having a weekend brunch ritual during which her husband would prepare items such as pancakes, French toast, muffins and smoothies.
Even if the food isn’t a gourmet feast, Gordon says that’s fine.
“Just have something, anything on the plate,” she says. “It’s who’s in the chair and not what’s on the plate.”
Ultimately, having families functioning better and strengthening the ties that bind is what’s important, says Schäfer.
“It’s primal of us to share food and have that way of connecting,” she says.
“So given that families are starting to sort of drift apart, I think mealtimes are an opportunity to work a little harder and get back to each other.”
About this article: