Are Family Dinners Really That Important?

Is there a multivitamin for family health?

Doctors and nutritionists have a saying: “It doesn’t really matter if you take vitamins, but it matters if you live your life like someone who takes vitamins.”  Basically, people who take vitamins also tend to eat better, exercise more and think about their health on a daily basis—and this is what leads to better health. The research on the efficacy of vitamins is inconclusive at best, but the evidence for these other healthy practices is rock solid.

Similarly, there’s lots of advice and research from psychologists, especially those who study adolescent well-being, asserting that families who eat dinner together gain a wide variety of benefits from doing so.  From an excellent Time Magazine article by Nancy Gibbs:

Studies show that the more often families eat together, the less likely kids are to smoke, drink, do drugs, get depressed, develop eating disorders and consider suicide, and the more likely they are to do well in school, delay having sex, eat their vegetables, learn big words and know which fork to use.

However, the fact is, there are lots of us who travel for work, who work long hours, and who work non-traditional schedules.  We need to provide for our families, but work obligations often preclude us from consistently having family dinners. Does this mean we’re depriving our kids of the myriad benefits of family meals? Should we be feeling guilty about this?

Nah.  In short, I contend that family dinners are a lot like vitamins.

Family dinners are great because they represent unstructured time for families to talk about their days (and I suspect there is something primal about sharing meals), but I believe that family dinners are over-rated. I contend (and I’m not alone in this) that the benefits of family dinners are less about “being the family that eats family dinners” and more about “being like families that eat dinners together.”

As long as we build in consistent unstructured time with our kids and families, I think we’re okay. There are lots of ways to do this, but I’ll share just one story to illustrate.

I have a friend* who travels for work from Monday through Thursday. He’s home Friday through Sunday. He necessarily misses family dinner while he’s away, but when he’s home, he is VERY present with his family. He coaches his kids’ sports teams (which is triple great because it represents (1) time spent with his kids, (2) being a good role-model, and (3) helping other kids in the community). Beyond shared structured activities, his days at home are centered on his family. He knows this is best for his family, but also that it is best for him.

And, while his family would clearly rather have him home for dinner every night, I’m sure his kids get all the benefits of having a great dad.

… and it’s even okay if they skip taking their vitamins.

*Actually, I have several friends and family members who meet this description. It is more common than you’d think.

So, how do you compensate for missing family dinners? We’d love to read your thoughts in the comments section.

 

This was previously published on Fathers, Work and Family.

Read more on Work/Life Balance on The Good Life.

Image credit: USDAgov/Flickr

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About Scott Behson

Scott Behson is a Professor of Management at Fairleigh Dickinson University, a busy involved dad, and an overall grateful guy. He runs the www.FathersWorkandFamily.com blog dedicated to helping fathers better balance work and family and encouraging more supportive workplaces, and also writes for Harvard Business Review, The Huffington Post, and, most recently, Time. He lives in Nyack, NY with his wife, Amy, and son, Nick. Contact him @ScottBehson on twitter.

Comments

  1. I have no doubt that there are other ways to achieve family togetherness. The most important thing to keep in mind that it should be consistent, frequent, and part of the daily/weekly routine, otherwise it’s not likely to happen. Since I’m from a family of 8 kids, dinner time was pretty much the only opportunity for all of us to get together and have positive, unstructured time as a family unit. My amazing parents bumped it up a notch and created “Seimos Valandele (Family Hour),” where we would all hang out in the living room after dinner and either discuss a current event, go for a walk, watch a play the younger sibs put on, pray, celebrate a birthday, etc. Of course, some sacrifices had to be made and some sports teams or clubs had to be passed up, but I can confidently say that it is what made the difference between all of us “just growing up together” and becoming best friends, respecting each others differences, and developing a closer relationship with our siblings and parents.

    • Vija- Thank you for your EXCELLENT comment. Your family dynamic sounds fantastic.

      I agree that the key is for families to have plenty of unstructured family time together (and to make this a priority in terms of scheduling). For many, family dinners help accomplish this, but I know some dads who beta themselves over not making dinners all the time.

      My main point is, your kids need an involved dad who takes time for them. It doesn’t need to be family dinner.

  2. Yes (if the family is not dysfunctional).

  3. I was one of those fathers that had to travel a lot but when I wasn’t traveling, the routine was family dinners. And when I stopped traveling, we had family dinners. But then again, because of my career, I was able to have a stay at home wife/mother who maintained consistency that included family dinners. And I should note that these dinners were not in front of the television. We sat down and talked, we interacted.

    There were time that I made sacrifices so that I could be at home for meals. If I had an out of state morning meeting, I could have easily flown out the night before but instead, I would get up very early and catch a morning flight. Traveling parents can work around their schedule and be at home for such things as meals.

    It’s funny, back in the 70’s there was a push for “quality time” vs. “Quantity time” and the feminists, because they were pushing stay at home moms out the door into the business world, they pushed “quality.” Think about quality … You go to a restaurant known worldwide for its prime beef. And when you’re served, they give you a 2” square of the beef and the waiter says, it’s not the “quantity” it’s the “quality.” BS, right? So why do we settle for “quality” vs. “quantity” for our kids.

    Are families dysfunctional because they don’t have a sit down dinner time? I don’t think so but that’s not to say that there aren’t benefits to it.

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