Are family meals still the be all and end all? I read an interesting article from Debbie Mayo-Smith recently. In it, she suggested that it wasn’t the end of the world if your family didn’t have a home cooked meal every night. The article raised a LOT of comment, most of it negative. Many commenters lambasted Debbie for suggesting that it didn’t matter if every now and again, dinner was a scratch effort, or held in many parts. Many commenters were ignoring the fact that Debbie’s children are all adults now, and perhaps the outrage should have been that she was still cooking dinner for them!
However, my children are not adults. They are 7, 13, 15 and 17, still young enough to benefit from family dinners. Now, don’t get me wrong. I firmly believe that family dinners are a great thing. I think it is really important to all sit down together, chat about your day, rag each other, get up and down a gazillion times to fetch drinks, sauce, cutlery and the like. Every parenting tome you dip into and every parenting expert suggests that this kind of interaction is invaluable in keeping your family connected.
But there are two issues here. Only two I hear you say? Well, two that apply to me. The first issue is that of a home cooked meal. I’m Irish by heritage, and the Irish do love to feed people. But does every meal need to be home cooked? Is it OK to serve your family pizza, or noodles, or baked beans from time to time, or are you scarring them for life? I like to cook food from scratch, and so these speedy meals seem to me to be a big cheat. I don’t even use pre-prepared sauces normally. BUT the simple fact is that I don’t always have time to prepare a wonderful healthy meal, and it’s better to have some food than none!
The other issue is that we have so many activities on that it is difficult to sit down and eat together every night. When the younger children eat at 6.00pm, some of the older ones don’t get home until 6.30pm, others have to be fed by 7.00pm because of waterpolo training, or other commitments – you see how it goes! Even breakfast is at different times as we leave the house in different carloads. It is generally a given that Monday through Friday, we will not all eat together. On Saturdays and Sundays, we do our best to eat together around sporting commitments, and normally manage to have at least one dinner and one lunch all together. According to all the parenting manuals and common philosophy, our children will be in therapy, and we are missing opportunities to open lines of communication.
But is that true? I don’t feel that it is. We spend lots of time with our children. Whether it is driving them to and from things – sporting events, practices, concerts, dates with friends, playing sports with them – we prioritise them and they know it. We have family game nights, compete with each other over charades, arm wrestling, balancing on one foot, planking and banagrams. I’m not trying to suggest that our family is perfect and this may not be the way for everyone, but…when we all eat together, our meals are often chaotic. With eight of us, there is lots of chat, lots of getting up and down, people eating at different speeds and eating slightly different things – it’s not what I would call quality connecting time.
So in principle, I agree. Family meals are excellent. But I think what is ACTUALLY excellent is seeking to make valuable time with each other as a family. To be significant in each other’s lives and not just as a TV watching zombie companion. To know what is going on with each family member. To show care for each other, whether it is by making the effort to make delicious fresh, home-cooked meals or to ensure that everyone gets to where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be. To take the time to build a fort of sofa cushions and blankets even when you’re feeling like crap. To play games, be silly, hug, sing and above all, show love. “Family meals” is a catch-all. An easy knock-off answer to “how can my family function better?” For each family, this will mean something different.
What does “family meals” aka “family time” look like in your household? What do you do to make your family more close-knit? How do you encourage communication in your family?