How important is the ritual of eating together in your family? Do you make time to sit together, talk and eat or are you constantly rushing about, going from one social engagement to the next without a thought of when or what you’re going to eat, let alone see each other.
What is the long term impact on your family’s wellbeing if you don’t eat together? That’s what I wanted to know going in to write this blog post.
What’s my motivation for tackling this subject? It’s simple really, I grew up in a household where mealtimes were something of a sacred ritual – a place where everyone stopped, spoke politely to each other, used good manners and heat healthy, home cooked food.
It was where I learned the art of conversation, debate and discourse. And where I was trained how to behave in a social setting that involved eating with other people.
All well and good but where are we now:
In the US, a staggering number of families don’t eat together. According to a 2003 poll:
Less than half of American families eat together for a minimum of 4 nights per week
24% of families ate together 3 nights a week or less.
A fifth of US teenagers at fast food ‘several times a week or every day’ for an evening meal.
British families fared a bit better in the same study with 69% of families eating together between 7 and 4 nights per week.
The reason for the decline? 78% of mothers now work and increasing numbers of children are engaged in after school activities (Source). The result is that mealtimes are relegated to a side note in the day’s schedule. As my mother would say:
A run round the table and a kick at the cat.
If you eat dinner together almost every night, you’re in the minority. But will there be a price to pay for these kids later in life?
Table manners are important, mainly because most people I meet don’t have any! I regularly eat out with work or friends and have seen some horrific eating habits. Sure, you can make your manners fit your surroundings, but leave the KFC/Hotdog Stand habits where they belong.
Living in Africa, evening mealtimes were important social occasions with everyone eating together in a separate house, sitting round the fire with the men sharing stories and educating the younger men and boys. The social skills learned were invaluable.
If you want your children to not be social pariahs in future, it’s your responsibility to hone their social skills so that they can enjoy a meal with other people. Letting them eat pasta while watching TV every night is not going to achieve this.
How to Spend Mealtimes Together
I’m a big fan of working with what you’ve got. If you work away from home a lot and don’t always get to see your wife and kids, that’s no excuse. There will be times when you are home and have the opportunity to eat with them. It might take discipline and a bit of forward planning but the opportunities will be worth it.
But first you must create the type of atmosphere conducive to good conversation and instruction that is, free from distractions.
Below I’ve laid out three key steps that you can take to preserve meal times and make sure that they remain enjoyable and fruitful for you and your family.
Let’s get started.
Turn the TV and Other Devices Off
If you want to preserve the important ritual of eating together, that means removing the distractions and focusing your attention on your wife and kids.
They will respond in turn with their attention as you speak, correct and train.
How often do you spend time in silence? Are you going to concentrate better on each other if there are distractions such as the TV or music/radio to deal with?
I regularly work with headphones on or read with classical music in the background. I’ve even used music to help me sleep better. So having no background noise is a rare treat.
Turn off the tv and radio and enjoy the sound of each other. Not digital sound.
Sit Around a Dinner Table
Sit around a dinner table and here’s the key part: facing each other. Living in Uganda I witnessed how the tribespeople interacted. They ate sitting on the mat or on small stools. Always in a circle. Always facing each other.
Why? Because that was the best way that they could interact and share the stories that were such an important part of being in the tribe.
How does that translate into your own little tribe? How often do you sit in a circle and share stories with each other? Story-telling is a lost art in western culture. Is it because of the way we’ve changed how we eat?
A good story – funny or otherwise – should have a punchline. Learn the art of this and pass it on to your kids. They’ll stand out in a crowd as interesting and charismatic individuals.
Put Your Phones, Devices in Another Room
This is something I started doing after reading Gorilla Mindset – I put my phone in another room when I want to focus on the people I’m with. It’s on silent all the time so I never hear a notification.
During meal times, I leave my phones (yes I have two) in the hall. Out of sight, out of mind.
I encourage my wife to do the same. The result? Mealtimes are not interrupted by my compulsion to check the stats on my latest post, how well A Father’s Mission is selling or whether my latest witty Tweet went viral yet.
Do you have older kids with their own phones and iPads? Why not have a voluntary system where all devices go into another room while you eat. If you did this, would you have a better or worse mealtime?
Reclaim Your Family Mealtimes
Here’s my challenge to you: challenge yourself to reclaim mealtimes – for your sake and your families. Have the discipline to come home early enough so you can sit together, eat and share stories.
Cultivate the leadership required to have a device – free meal. It’s only for 30 minutes. Are we really so enslaved to our smartphones that we can’t go 1/48th of a day without it?
Reclaim meal times. Sit, eat and enjoy each other’s company.
P.S. I wrote a book about reclaiming fatherhood and being the best Dad you can be. Get it here.