When family members are constantly on the go, one of the first casualties is the family meal. Typically, overscheduled families eat dinner in shifts: Mother and one child may swing by a fast-food restaurant drive-through on the way to music lessons. Another child may stop at home for a sandwich following soccer practice before going to a part-time job. A third child may come home an hour later and just snack on cereal. Dad may have a 12-hour day at the office, plus a long commute, and eat a microwave dinner when he gets home late in the evening.
According to the Food Marketing Institute, just 40 percent of American families eat dinner together, and then, no more than two or three times a week. That’s in stark contrast to just a generation ago when close to 80 percent of families regularly ate evening meals together.
Certainly this endangered tradition is something worth saving. “The family dinner gives family members a chance to reconnect with each other after a long day at school or work,” notes William Doherty, professor of family social science. “It helps everyone feel closer and lets children know their parents are interested in what’s going on with them.”
Probably one of the best ways to find time for family meals is for family members to cut down on the number of outside activities they’re involved with, especially those that take place at dinnertime. In addition, you may want to take the following steps.
PUT IT ON YOUR CALENDAR
If family members simply can’t rearrange their schedules for regular meals together, create a monthly meal calendar with at least two times a week set aside for a family meal. Find times when your family could be together with a minimum of disruptions. “It doesn’t have to be an evening dinner,” Doherty says. “It could be a Sunday morning breakfast, a late-night dessert, or a snack before bedtime.”
GET EVERYONE INVOLVED
Get everyone in the family to pitch in with food preparation, table setting and cleanup, so that one person isn’t doing all the work. “The whole family can be in the kitchen together, one person setting the table, someone else doing the stir-fry, another making a salad, and everyone can help clean up afterward,” suggests Barbara James, an associate professor of family and consumer sciences at Ohio State University. Not only does this spread out the workload, she says; it’s also a good opportunity for communication and teaching children how to cook.
TURN OFF THE TELEVISION
Eat at the dining room table for most meals, without a television on in the background. If a favorite television show comes on during the dinner hour, be willing to tape it with your VCR to watch later.
TAKE PHONE MESSAGES
If you have an answering machine, let it record messages for you during mealtimes so you can eat your dinner without interruptions. If a machine isn’t available, ask your friends and family to put off their phone calls until after your children’s bedtime unless there’s an emergency.