Sitting down regularly to a family meal may be alien to many of you but it's something we've known ever since our childhood and we've made it central to our own family way of life. Our four children have grown up with this and we hope they'll see it as important enough to their own lives to want to continue the tradition.
There's no secret recipe for a successful family meal, but we reckon that they should be regular, there should be no TV, no snacks and no rush. Just prepare the food and sit down together to enjoy the meal, each others company and just .. see what happens. Food can vary from salads and light meals in the summer to roasts, stews and full meals when it's cold. We serve up at the table and people are encouraged to eat as much of what they want, so fads and sensitivities are quietly taken care of. It's just as easy to prepare a vegetarian dish or a different meat dish alongside the main dish for these who can't enjoy the main meal and these days we make sure we do a little planning up front for what people eat. In any case, it's the togetherness that's important. The food is almost a bonus.
As the children have grown up so the family meal has evolved too. We've had to adapt when we eat and how often as it's as difficult to make a toddler sit still through a long meal as it is to insist on fixed times during teenage years where our children had other activities that overlap mealtimes. However, during all of this we rarely let a week go by without all of us sitting down together for a meal and often we shared two or three such meals every week. Even now, with our children grown up and moved out, we usually enjoy a family get-together once a month - with the added benefit these days of being able to eat out, as well as in!
It's not an experiment; we don't score points but we do encourage everyone to talk and participate and everyone is equal. There are no real rules other than normal decorum and politeness and it is a great way (if a little daunting) for new friends to become acquainted with the family. We firmly believe that this type of meal - with everyone joining in - has provided our children with a rich environment for language (at an earlier age) for stories, debates, family history - or just plain fun. By encouraging them all to talk during these family meals we've brought up teenagers who could (and would) converse with adults rather than just grunting and we are convinced we have had a happier family life as a result.
There are one or two 'taboo's' at a family meal. We don't have 'family conferences' at the table, nor do we try to resolve conflicts within the family (important when bringing up teenagers) but we will all help sort out issues that are discussed. Also, it's very important that the family meal is not a platform for the 'head of the household' to preach either!
It would seem that others also think that family meals are good for you. The UK's Daily Mail newspaper reported that children who have family meals are 'less likely to be overweight and binge on junk food' and there is a therapist in the States who comments on a large number of scientific studies that confirm what we parents have known intuitively for a long time: sitting down to a family meal is good for the spirit, the brain, and the body. She cites that "Recent studies link regular family dinners (5 or more meals a week) with a host of teenage behaviours that parents pray for: lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and depression, as well as higher grade-point averages and self-esteem. Dinner conversation is a great booster of vocabulary for young children, and stories told around the table about parents and grandparents help to build self-esteem and resilience. The icing on the cake is that regular family meals also lower the rates of obesity and eating disorders in children".
So if you've not tried them, turn the TV off, organise a time when no-one is busy (and that includes both spouse/partner and children) and plan a meal. Try to set aside a couple of hours and try to think of some subjects to kick off discussions. Make sure (for the first few meals) that everyone gets to speak and the quieter ones round the table are allowed to speak up.
Finally, don't give up if the first one doesn't work. Just try again (perhaps after discussing maybe why the first one failed). Drop a comment below if you already have regular meals, or if you'll be trying them, or if they didn't work. I'd like to hear from you.