In a world full of gadgets and distractions, the kitchen table has come to represent something far different from the gathering place it used to be. It has become a placeholder for the items we depend on, like computers and phones or a casual pit stop to eat a mindless meal before we continue along our hectic days. We often rush through our lives ignoring the importance of the table in the room and the sense of stability it can provide.
Sharing meals with family is one of the most powerful rituals we can practice. I’m not telling you anything new and the studies back it up…eating meals together allows for families to strengthen their communication and bonds. In addition to better eating habits and healthier meals, routine dinners together at home provide children and caretakers with a comforting sense of predictability and consistency that correlates to decreased engagement in high-risk behaviors for children and teens. When I begin my work with a family, one of the first questions I ask is- “What does dinner time look like in your home?” This simple question gives me more information about family dynamics and the culture of the home than any other question I can ask.
There is no better way to teach our children active listening and communication skills than through engaging them in conversation, without technology. That’s right, I said it….phones and computers have no place at the dinner table. Responding to “How was your day?” should not require a smartphone. I challenge the families I work with to leave their technology at the door and truly enjoy time together. Although your children may fear that missing the latest Instagram post or snap will end their social life, they will thank you later. For many of us, dinner time may be the only part of the day that we can sit down together as a family to discuss our days or tell a funny story or joke. Encourage everyone to participate in the dinner conversation and be sure that everyone at your table feels that their opinion is welcomed and important.
Sharing meals together can also provide everyone with a role. Perhaps someone is preparing the food while someone else is setting the table. Encourage everyone to help in the clean-up process after dinner. This can instill a sense of shared responsibility within the home.
Eating together as a family also provides us with a great opportunity to eat mindfully, which can benefit family dynamics and your physical health. Often times we rush through meals and don’t allow time for our minds and bodies to connect. When our minds are distracted, we don’t truly enjoy the flavors and textures of our meals. Family meals allow us to take a step-back from our hectic lives and pay attention not only to the food on our plate, but to each other too.
I also consider myself to be a realist in a sense that I know work and extracurricular activities can prevent this from happening every night, and that’s okay. Perhaps your family tradition is to eat dinner together on one designated night per week, no matter what. Or maybe Sunday brunch is your family’s consistent time together each week. Whatever the day or time, you are providing a sense of predictability and stability that can go a long way in the formation of identity and values for children.
In my own life, Friday evenings are a consistent time for my family and I to be together. I look forward to the idea of coming home from work after a long week, preparing a healthy meal, and knowing that my family and I will be at the table together no matter what. Since adopting this tradition, I have noticed that the increased sense of predictability allows me to feel more relaxed at the end of my workweek. We no longer make plans to go out Friday evenings. Instead, we welcome the idea of hosting a dinner for family and friends in our home, the more the merrier. It is a time for us to reflect on our week, both individually and together as a family, and talk about what’s to come. This is our one evening that we don’t have to stress about making plans; we know where we will be.
So decide what your family’s time will be to come to the table together. Perhaps it is breakfast or a weekend dinner together in your home. Whatever the day or time, don’t let the opportunity to check-in with each other pass you by, and don’t ignore the table in the middle of the room.
Heather Sutter, LCSW is a Senior Associate at a Good Place Therapy & Consulting, where she works with teens, families and couples. To find out more about Heather, please visit her page on the website here.