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The Family Dinner
Mom with a View

The Family Dinner

Why it needs to be a priority in your home.


By now everyone knows the benefits of family dinners – better grades, less obesity, less substance abuse, better relationships with parents and better mental health (based on the 2011 report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse). Even one family dinner per week (Shabbos anyone?) makes a big difference (in fact a 15% reduction in the odds of substance abuse as well as a reduction in depressive symptoms and delinquency).

It seems like a no-brainer, a fairly simple solution to a myriad of serious problems. Yet many families find it very difficult to implement.

I have to confess that my children have not been involved in team sports. Although I drove a mini-van, I was never a “soccer” mom. After-school activities were kept to a minimum and, except for the particularly intense times of school performances, our family ate dinner together every night.

I’m not asking for praise. It actually wasn’t very hard to accomplish. We were lucky that my husband’s office is a 5-minute drive from our house. He could come home for dinner (baths, stories and homework, depending on the age) and then return to his office or go out to teach afterwards. It was a commitment we made together but it was pretty easy to keep.

If time with our children is a priority, we need to adjust our schedule accordingly.

But for families whose children have multiple yet not the same extra-curricular interests, just balancing the schedule – the carpooling, the equipment purchase and cleaning, the attendance at games and recitals – can be a logistical nightmare.

How can they possibly fit in this all-important family dinner? How can they fit in any dinner at all? (Shabbos anyone?)

So now parents are asking a new question, “How Long Does Dinner Have to Be?” (Wall Street Journal, 9/18/13) I get it. I really do. They want to make it all work. But maybe, just maybe, they’re asking the wrong question.

Why is the assumption that family dinner has to be fit in amidst this other barrage of activities? Couldn’t we turn this assumption on its head and ask the opposite question? How do we fit these activities around our family dinner?

It seems to me a question of priorities. Sure team sports can be a wonderful experience for children. And there is much to be learned. But do the studies list the same benefits as they do for family dinners? And how many team sports or extra-curricular activities do we need? Isn’t one enough? Is this about what the children want, what everyone else is doing or even perhaps college resumes?

When does the downside of the constant rushing, the stress, the lack of relaxed family time outweigh the benefits of that soccer tournament? I don’t have the answers (Shabbos anyone?) but I certainly have lots of questions.

I can’t believe that just any family dinner, no matter how short, will be equally effective. I think some minimal time commitment is necessary. If you go away on vacation, it usually takes a day just to unwind and separate. Dinnertime is not that different. First, we unwind; then we relax, switch gears, and talk to our families. I don’t think an 8-minute dinner allows time for both.

You can’t have quality time without providing quantity time.

Likewise I’ve never bought the mantra that “It’s quality time not quantity time that counts.” You can’t have quality time without providing quantity time. Children and relationships are not spigots that you can turn on and off at will. They may need to sit quietly for 20 minutes at the dinner table before they are ready to talk. In fact they may want to approach you with something on their mind at 10:30 p.m. Are you home? Available? It’s frequently only when homework is done and the day is winding down that real issues emerge.

Dinner is a microcosm of this experience. It can’t be rushed. Of course we can’t have long dinners every night (Shabbos anyone?). And not everyone’s office is close to home. Compromises need to be made. But let’s be honest and realistic. We must examine our priorities. If it’s time with our children that we really want, and especially dinner time with our children, then we need to adjust our schedule accordingly.

October 20, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 8

(8) Dvirah, January 9, 2014 8:40 PM

My Two Cents

As the daughter of a working mother and as one myself, family dinners are a strictly Shabbat ritual. One of the reasons they are so special is that they are NOT everyday occurrances, so cannot become routine, boring or a "chore." The weekly interval gives everyone plenty to say and connecting them with Shabbat and Holidays also makes them more special than would an everyday routine.

(7) Anonymous, October 24, 2013 7:30 PM

I HATED family dinner growing up. My parents did not relate to us children on a individual level so for that reason dinner time felt like I was sitting with four strangers making superficial small talk pretending to be like a normal family when really we were highly dysfunctional!

So for the first ten or so years of motherhood we did not have dinner together because it just brought back terrible memories for me. But in the past year I have realized that instead of chasing after each of my children to eat dinner at some point in the evening, it would be MUCH easier for me to feed them all 5 at once, and yes, at one table. So this is what I have been trying to do recently. BUT I do not eat with them simply because I cannot sit for more than two minutes at a time with them without someone needing something and my needing to get up. AND I do not enjoy my meal in the midst of getting up and down, squabbling between the children and general often chaotic meal-time. Only on Shabbos my husband and I eat together with the kids. Some meals are more enjoyable than others. Its a work in progress...

Thank you Emuna for your enlightening articles.

(6) Anonymous, October 24, 2013 12:33 AM

Why such negative comments?

I thought the article was making a VERY important point. It's about clarifying and implementing priorities. And if possible, making the family dinner a part of life can add a lot of important aspects to childrens' lives as mentioned in the article. Everything in life doesn't need scientific proof, some things are just self-evident as beneficial. Yes if parents are mentally ill or other specific cicumstances, perhaps a family dinner would be too harsh. But I think the article was not addressing such circumstances. I too like to eat in peace and quiet, but I am learning (teaching myself) to relax and eat slowly and not get too focused on childrens' eating habits so I can join the family dinner. When I am feeling like the atmosphere at the dinner table is too scattered or too energetic, I suggest we go around and share two things we liked in our day, one thing we didn't like, and one thing we want to thank Hashem (G-d) for. So much gratitude comes out of everyone's mouths and also we get to hear about eachother's days which is just simple sharing and connecting time. It doesn't happen every night like clockwork, but a few nights a week is enough to get us in a groove of relaxing and enjoying eachother's company over dinner. I think the main point of the article is to recognize that a family dinner is overall benefical to kids' development and security, and to try to implement it when possible. If your work schedule doesn't allow, then as was suggested throughout the article, you always have Shabbos.

(5) Eva, October 22, 2013 11:21 PM

Wrong and sad

"By now everyone knows the benefits of family dinners – better grades, less obesity, less substance abuse, better relationships with parents and better mental health."

This is a perfect example of how statistically illiterate today's society is. The document cited was an observational study, which means that it simply observed correlations between variables. Observational studies are not controlled enough to make statements about causation. All of these supposed "links" between family dinners and academic performance/health can be explained away by two simple lurking variables: mental health and substance abuse issues of the parents, and socioeconomic status. It is far more likely that family dinners do not discourage mental health problems or substance abuse. Rather, family dinners are more common in families that have better parent-child relationships, less substance abuse, and fewer mental health problems in the first place. What child would be eager to have dinner with a parent who had a severe mental health disorder or an addiction? It goes without saying that the conclusions drawn from this study regarding health are completely backwards.As for the other two variables mentioned - better grades and less obesity - these are easily explained away by socioeconomic status. It is easier for wealthier families to buy fresh fruits and vegetables rather than foods high in fat and sugar content. Many of the cheapest foods in the supermarket are also the most unhealthy, leading to disproportionate levels of obesity among America's poor. Furthermore, children from upper-class families have more access to academic resources (tutors, extra textbooks, better school districts, private schools, etc.) than their lower-class counterparts.The sad fact is that this article could have had an excellent message about the importance of increasing family bonding, but it misses the point because it cannot take in a whole perspective more complex than what Ms. Emuna states.

(4) Anonymous, October 22, 2013 9:33 PM

I do not enjoy family dinners. It makes me feel very tight and uncomfortable and my family's eating habits bothers me. I enjoy having space and air and quiet when I eat.

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