Let Us Break Bread Together
October 18th, 2010

Throughout my childhood my family ate two meals together every day.  We sat down to breakfast as a family and reconvened for supper at the end of the day.  There were exceptions here and there – sleepovers, evening sports games when Anne and I were a bit older, and so on – but by and large we ate together every day.  I’m fairly certain that I didn’t recognize the value and importance of this at the time.  I’m completely certain I didn’t recognize the amount of effort put forth by my mother to pull this feat off day after day.  And as I look into the future of my own family I wonder how I will manage to bring my family together every evening.

It’s fairly common knowledge that there is a distinct positive correlation between the absence of family meals and the presence of a myriad of behavioral problems in kids.  This article by Kari Henley cites a 10-year study done by Columbia University which found that kids whose families eat dinner together fewer than three times per week had significantly increased likelihood of tobacco and marijuana use, eating disorders, and depression.  I don’t take these statistics lightly.*  And I want to be sure that our weeknight routine is one that facilitates awareness and conversation and involvement in each other’s lives.

So where does that put my family?  IEP is nearly two years old.  He eats his supper earlier than GAP and I do, and we eat together after he’s asleep.  Our days are fairly regimented.  We have a nanny schedule, a dog-walking schedule, a workout schedule, etc.  We’ve found a routine that works for us, but I wonder at what point it will cease to work for us.  Or more importantly, when will it cease to work for IEP?  Before too long we will need to eat dinner as a family, which will, in turn, up-end our existing weeknight routine.  I certainly value my evening workouts (regular exercise keeps me sane), but if my kids need me at the dinner table each night, I may have to sacrifice some of my gym time.  (Yet I also care about setting an example of physical health and fitness, and so where does this figure back in?)

The other thing that scares me a bit about the family dinner is my role as a working mom.  My own mother quit her job when she was pregnant with me and never looked back.  I’ve taken a different path and the wonderful example that was set for me as a child may not work for me as an adult.  I will need to find ways to make sure that we all sit down to a home-cooked meal each evening, even on days when I’m in the office until 5:30 or later.  I’m sure this will involve conscientious menu planning and Sunday afternoon prep work.  And knowing myself I’m relatively confident that I’ll pull it off most of the time.  But that doesn’t mean that the whole premise doesn’t still overwhelm me. 

As I write this I remind myself that parenting isn’t for the faint hearted.  I made it through the first six months of overnight feedings.  I made it through teething.  I’m currently surviving increasing two-year-old tantrums.  I suspect I will also survive all of the unknown challenges that await me.  I just hope that I manage to get dinner on the table in the process.     

*I do think it is important to point out that one misnomer regarding these types of studies is correlation versus causality.  Family dinners are correlated with more stable and well-behaved kids and teens.  They do not cause that improved behavior.  Rather, families who eat dinner together regularly are more likely to experience fewer behavioral problems because family dinners are symptomatic of parents who are actively involved in their kids’ lives.

17 Responses to “Let Us Break Bread Together”

  1. Rebecca Says:

    You have survived some of the hardest part already, you’ll definitely make it through the next transition!

    In parenthood, more than ever, I have felt more out of control of what lies ahead! It’s been so much harder to plan and chart my way forward – professionally, in the home, personally, etc. I don’t have any solutions really. For the most part its trial and error, prioritization and delegation.

    I look forward to family dinners also (we follow the same routine as you with our nearly 2 yr old) which will involve me eating only one dinner/night instead of the two I currently eat (toddler leftovers, plus adult dinner after!)!

  2. Jeanna Says:

    We have just started the process of adjusting to a single family meal together. There are three things that are making this possible for me – planning, a slow cooker, and leftovers. Another benefit to switching to one meal a night is that you have more free time after the kids go to sleep.

  3. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    We struggle with this, too! The kids get hungry early, hubs works late, homework needs to be wrangled with…

    We try to eat breakfast together, but that’s hard, too! Hubs has early morning meetings, one of the girls is going through a growth spurt so she sleeps later, typical morning chaos.

    We make Sunday dinner happen, and several mornings a week, but it’s hard. I feel guilty. What I do try to do (because I can) is sit with them during after school snack/homework and check in with them about their day. It’s not ideal, but it eases the weight on my shoulders a bit.

  4. Laura H. Says:

    Our family eats together almost every night and we always have. Even when our children were infants. It’s the best part of the day! I totally don’t understand families that don’t do this! Small children learn by modeling, so what better way to model good discussion and good food choices and table manners?!

    The key for us – one parent needs to leave earlier for work than the other so he/she can get home earlier and start on dinner. Crock pots, leftovers and occasional carry-out are helpful too. We also have dinner at our church one evening a week. Our older child sits at a different table from us – her “church family” table.

  5. Gale Says:

    Rebecca – You’re right about the trial and error. I need to be sure to remember that it was trial and error that got us to our current routine which serves us so well. As our needs and priorities shift we will try and fail with many other game plans until we find the one that works.

    Jeanna – I need to make better use of my slow cooker. Especially now that we’re getting into cooler weather and briskets and chilis sound so delicious. I also like the idea of more free time in the evening. It’s frequently after 9:00 by the time GAP and I finish eating. I certainly wouldn’t mind having some extra time to myself in the evening.

    Thanks for the feeback, ladies!

  6. Gale Says:

    Laura – In our defense, IEP sits at the table and eats supper with at least one parent each night. His high chair doesn’t have a tray and pulls up to the table. So he’s been eating “at the table” since he was six months old, and learning to keep his food on his plate, not throw things on the floor, not feed the dogs from the table, etc. In some ways – at least in these early years – I think this could be better for him because whichever parent is eating with him isn’t also trying to eat their own meal, carry on a conversation with their spouse, etc. We are completely focused on him. Additionally, I’ve found that sitting down to an uninterrupted dinner with GAP at the end of a long day is a good way for us to stay connected and in tune with each other. Nevertheless, as IEP gets older I realize our current paradigm will have to shift.

  7. E Says:

    I think the most important words in your blog today may have been “never looked back.” I do believe it was easier thirty years ago when the “norm” was the non-working mom, but that is not today’s world so my advice is choose your priorities carefully then make it work. I wouldn’t trade our family dinners for anything – too many good memories and funny stories after the fact (did they really pay Jon to gulp their clam chowder when I went to the kitchen for something?). I do believe that family meals are important and you do what you can to make them happen; however, it doesn’t mean they have to be home-cooked nor does it mean if one parent or the other can’t be there that it’s a wash. Conversation is the biggie here….and not making mealtime a battle between you and the kids to eat something that really doesn’t hit their tasty spot (meaning – increase their allowance so they have enough to pay Jon). No one ever said this parenting thing was easy but it is absolutely worth every second of labor you put in it. Do your best and don’t look back.

  8. Christine Says:

    This is so very important for me. Growing up we had all of our meals together. To this day, we regular come together as an extended family on a Sunday for dinner. It’s a staple in my life, and was unquestioned in my youth. So I’m trying to model it at home too. My husband and I actually eat at a ridiculously early hour just so that we can do so with our boys every night. The 19 month usually joins us for 10 or 15 minutes and then carries on, but our 4 year old sits with us every night. It’s not a choice. But I’m with you, as a working mom, it can be a struggle. And there are nights when I wish I didn’t have to bother. But I keep on keeping on, it’s just too important.

  9. Jane Says:

    Breakfasts AND dinner? I’m in awe. And the struggles you mention of being a working mom and trying to maintain some kind of nightly dinner routine? So difficult. Thank you for this post. You’ve encouraged me to get back to my insistance that we eat together more often. We do for breakfast and dinner every Sat. and Sun. But weekdays? I’ve been letting that slide with my husband’s late hours and my daughter needing to work on homework. Breakfast is near impossible – or so it seems. But I need to stop fixing my daughter a plate and letting her eat while she works. Joining the boys and I for 15 minutes each evening will certainly not hurt her gradepoint average.

  10. Cathy Says:

    We never eat breakfast together but almost always eat dinner together. I am a working mom and my kids are a bit older, but even when my kids were babies, we still all ate together. There may have been nights where hubby got home late, in which case I ate dinner with the boys and hubs ate when he got home, but me and the kids are almost always a regular deal.

    As for exercise, yah, I’m still trying to figure that one out. Early morning is a challenge for me because I will always opt to sleep in just a little bit later. During my lunch hour is the next best thing. Crockpot meals are my best friend and always, always, I must prepare on the weekend – grocery shop and meal plan for if those two things don’t happen, we most definitely will be eating Burger King or other such garbage.

  11. Bridget Says:

    One of my most favorite times of the day with my son is when we sit down to dinner together, hold hands, and Daddy leads us in prayer before we eat. At 2 it is precious to me that he knows to wait to eat until after prayer and he also bows his little head and loves to say Amen! when Dad is through giving thanks. I hadn’t given this too much thought before reading your post today, but it makes me feel like we’re starting off on the right track to make family meal times a priority.

    And for me morning exercise is the only way I can seem to fit in family dinners. I do a 30 min video 3 mornings a week and then reserve the weekends for 2 bigger workouts. I’m not in the best shape of my life, but I’m not in the worst either. There’s always give and take when trying to “do it all”.

  12. Gale Says:

    Just wanted to pop back in and say THANK YOU to all of you for these comments. I’m encouraged and inspired by the value that you all find in making your family dinners work. And I appreciate hearing about your various approaches and methods. I’m getting some great ideas and starting to feel that this will perhaps be more manageable than I initially anticipated.

  13. Leigh Says:

    Gale,
    We ate *almost* every night together as a family – NO T.V. I should mention. Every night *almost* we were asked: what did you learn today? And, I’m certain it was what contributed to what a tight knit unit we still are today. We shared and learned and grew together.

    It was hard on my mom sometimes I’m sure – but she put the onus on us to help as we got older. She had a few routine meals that I could prep easily – she would leave a note: bread pork chops; bake at x degrees at x o’clock. then come home and throw together a veggie and/or salad to complement the main course.

    For my family it was dinner – but that doesn’t mean it has to be for yours – the whole point is quality time right? I have a friend who just can’t swing dinner with her husband’s work schedule and 3 little girls. So, they get up extra early every single weekday (and I’m talking EARLY) to share the start to their day – her husband does waffles or pancakes or eggs/hashbrowns – it is literally a full meal deal. I have another friend that does a “Game Night” on Friday’s – her kids are older so they have pizza, play games and hang out as their time together.

    The fact is you are aware and trying to make it happen so I’m confident you will continue to do so in whatever form it takes Gale.
    P.S. Keep up the thought provoking entries Gale – your blog entries are so varied in topic that I always look forward to reading what is on your mind!

  14. Eva @ EvaEvolving Says:

    Wow, breakfast together – that’s not easy. But I wholeheartedly agree about the value of family dinners. I love the comfort of this routine, the guarantee of time together (almost) every day. And yes, even on nights when I work until 5:30 or we get a quick workout in at the gym on the way home. As you point out, planning ahead is key. Doing prep work on Sunday is good. And I also try to keep carrots and celery or cheese and crackers on hand, ready to eat for a small, healthy snack while making dinner. That really seems to help.

  15. Jan Says:

    Well, I just had to jump in… Fixing dinner at night these days, after 34 years, isn’t so much fun, but then, it was. The kids came home from school about 3 or 3:30, and that–in case you need to know–is when you learn EVERYTHING. Pick them up at school, and keep your mouth shut. Then, while they’re getting a snack, lurk…listen. “Unwinding,” especially for a girl, means talking. I loved that. Then they’d disappear to their rooms, and after an hour or so, I’d throw something together for supper. It was not always planned and not always great, but it was a joy to have that time with my family. Again, you learn so much about your children. And, yes, it’s a choice you have to make. I think for us it paid off. There are certainly many ways to “be a family,” but this one pleased me, at least, greatly. My only other comment would be…Gale, you mentioned that when one of you eats with IEP, you are totally focused on him. One of the great things that kids learn at the table with adults is that they–the kids–are NOT the focus of everyone else’s attention. They learn to be a part of something, and not the main part. That would lead to my speech about “trophy children,” which I’ll save for another day.

  16. Holly Says:

    Gale,
    What makes this work for us (and we’re only a twosome) is Time for Dinner, which is a place we go and make meals in advance that are ridiculously good and super affordable. We thaw the night before and then just make a salad or veggie and we’re done! These are great backups for when you just don’t have time to cook. If you’d ever like to try it, let me know and I’ll take you along.

    http://www.timefordinner.com

  17. Gale Says:

    Holly – I have another friend who swears by Time For Dinner. I’ve thought about it, but haven’t pulled the trigger yet. Another ringing endorsement makes me think that maybe I need to give it a try. Thanks (as always) for reading, and for the recommendation!