In our family, there are 3 kids under the age of 10. That equals a busy everyday life: playdates, homework, pick-up, drop-off, sleepovers, sports, our own work, etc. You probably get the picture. We are all in the house every day at some point, but rarely at the same time. Our kids and their friends run in and out of the house as if they got a dollar for every time the door opens. Sometimes, we are 2 people in the house, sometimes 9 (when we count their friends, too). And as much as I love that, it also underscores the importance of picking out a time every day, where we sit, talk, and share. All of us, at the same time.
Shared meals every day
At our house, dinner is mandatory. Not only on Sundays. Every day. Looking back, I can’t remember one single time, where we were not all gathered around the table for dinner. Unless of course, if someone has sports, or is having dinner at a friend’s house. Otherwise, it would almost require a doctor’s note for somebody to be excused. And as hard as this can be to implement because there never seems to be enough hours of the day, we have made this a dedicated decision.
A few years ago, I never realized how fundamental this is in our family. We just did it, without ever wondering why. Where we come from, in Denmark, this is the norm. The phone never rings between 6 and 7 pm in Denmark, because that’s dinner time, so you’d need a really good excuse to disturb at this time of day.
The dinner table is a social anchor
When moving to America, we realized that that was not quite the case here: a lot of people did not have a dinner table, and those who did, rarely used it, except maybe for Sunday dinner with the extended family. That naturally raised some questions for us and made us aware of how crucial this routine was for us – and why. To us, the dinner table represents the anchor of our family. That’s where we civilize and socialize our children. That’s where we talk about big and small: What’s on the News, how was school, what do you want to be when you grow up, how do you feel about this and that? This is where our values trickle down to our kids without us even noticing it. The dinner table is where we connect with and insist on knowing our kids. Mealtimes are not only fuel for our bodies, they are also social nourishment and the center for connectedness in our family.
Is family finner an extinct institution?
But it turns out that in America, the dining table and the shared meal seem to be almost bygone ideals. 1/5 of all meals are eaten in the car, whereas many meals are eaten on the couch or in the bed, often with the TV on and often alone. Families snack or graze during the day and if dinner is served at all, the eating is often staggered, and only rarely do families sit down together. This is mostly due to long work hours and individual food preferences.
But does the dining table have anything to offer us? Or should we just accept the extinction of the shared meal and the dining table? Studies suggest that not only are we overall healthier, but also happier, when we have family dinners on a regular basis, hence these shared meals are associated with lower levels of depression and eating disorders, lower risk of kids engaging in risk behaviours like smoking, drinking alcohol, substance abuse, and violence. Surprisingly, family dinners even have a positive impact on children’s school performance and grades. Furthermore, children are healthier eaters when they grow up if they had dinner with their family routinely.
So maybe the dinner table still has something to offer? But maybe we need to reinvent it, so it matches our busy everyday lives.
By Gitte Holm-Møller Nordic Family Table