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In Praise of Family Meals

My mother, who sometimes worked during my childhood and sometimes didn't, wasn't an enthusiastic homemaker under either circumstance. She much preferred sweating in the garden. But despite her disinterest in domestic matters, our family ate a hot meal together every single night of the week.

It wasn't necessarily tasty food, mind you. My mother was a wonderful cook, but she took a lot of shortcuts. Often, dinner consisted of nothing more than baked chicken, boiled peas, and sliced tomatoes. Sometimes it wasn't even that exciting. (Nobody welcomed the advent of Hamburger Helper with more joy than my mother.) Shortcuts, Mom said, gave her more time to talk to us.

And talking is what my family still excels at. Even now, 20 years since we all lived in the same house, I talk to each of my siblings long-distance a couple of times a week and to my parents almost daily. Though we reside in different towns, we manage to get together at least every other month. And I firmly believe that our closeness as a family goes back to all those evenings we spent telling one another about what we'd seen and done and thought about that day — and all those nights my brother and I managed to make our baby sister laugh so hard she spewed milk across the table into our father's hair.

Which, more than anything else, is why I've made the same commitment to communal meals with my own family. I have about as much enthusiasm for cooking as my mom did, but I like sitting down every evening and talking to my three sons, listening as they tell their dad and me about their day, laughing as they crack each other up. And I admit that, perhaps a little selfishly, I'm trying to feather the larger nest as well: I want my kids to stay close — to each other and to my husband and me — when they're grown and gone, and I want them to have the blessing someday of families as happy as the one they're growing up in now.

Margaret Renkl's most recent article for Parenting was "And Baby Makes 7," in the August issue.

Why Mealtime Matters

It may seem like foolishness, or blind ambition, to set the table with so many goals every night, but experts agree that regular family meals actually do provide great benefits. Sitting down together to eat is the most important activity of family life, says Robert Billingham, Ph.D., a professor of human development and family studies at Indiana University. "It demonstrates that the family is so important it's worth making time for. Only reading together comes close in importance," he says.

The difference between mealtime and other family-bonding activities — after-dinner walks, weekend trips to the park — is the physical arrangement. In such settings, it's possible for adults and children to become focused on their surroundings. At the table, family members have no choice but to face and focus on each other. And there's a value to talking as a group that no one-on-one conversation between a parent and a child or between two siblings, no matter how intimate, can achieve. "All families have conflicts; family meals teach kids there's a safe place to come together," says James Koval, Ph.D., a professor of family and consumer sciences at California State University, Long Beach.

Family Meals in a Busy World

It wasn't until I had children of my own that I began to understand the triumph my mother pulled off every evening. It's all too easy to prize togetherness and still find it nearly impossible to get everyone to the dinner table at the same time. For both working and stay-at-home mothers, the cooking hour invariably coincides with hell hour, and attempting to stir a pot with a fussy toddler on your hip is no recipe for family happiness. Plus, small children tend to get hungry long before adults and generally don't care for "grown-up" food. And those are just the problems that crop up before the kids get older and you factor in sports and music practice. Is it any wonder the fast-food circuit's so tempting?

These days, nothing's going to make family meals a cinch, but there are ways to make them a little easier:

Keep it simple Take a few shortcuts. On chaotic evenings in my own house, pizza reigns. (If you order vegetarian over pepperoni, it's even healthy.) The greatest value in the family meal is the family, not the meal.

And most of the time, you don't have to sacrifice nutrition for ease. Shannon Anderson of Ann Arbor, Michigan, mom of Evan, 4, and David, 2, swears by foods in their lowest state of preparation — lots of raw vegetables and fruits (well chopped), slices of cheese, and wheat bread with butter. For especially hectic nights, Lisa Eveleigh of Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi, keeps flour tortillas and other burrito fixings (black beans, cheese, tomatoes, rice) on hand at all times. Her daughters, Helen, 6, and Katherine, 2, can assemble their own, which eliminates arguments.

Keep it flexible Just because you can't sit down together every night doesn't mean you can't sit down together at all. I have a friend, a single mother of four budding athletes, whose family eats most evening meals in the minivan as she shuttles between ball fields. But they never miss breakfast together, even if it's just instant oatmeal.

Another flexibility strategy involves who eats what and when. At least three out of four nights, says stay-at-home mom Barb Waugh of Houston, her husband, Jay, arrives late — after she and Eleanor, 3, and Sean Thomas, 1, have already started. But he sits down to join them immediately, leaving the mail and e-mail until after dinner. The kids just hang out and snack in their seats until he's finished, says Waugh. It doesn't matter that they're not eating exactly the same thing at the same time.

This won't work with all kids, however. Little ones often refuse to remain at the table once they're full. "If ten or fifteen minutes is the longest they'll stay, that's okay, as long as they maintain those ten minutes," says Patrick Stern, author of A Wellness Prescription: How to Raise a Happy, Healthy Child.

Keep it happy The point of a family meal is to enjoy each other. This is a good time to introduce new dishes and to model basic table manners — wait till everyone's at the table to start; no interrupting — but not to become an etiquette despot or the food police. And it's definitely not the time to air major grievances or discuss serious family conflicts, says Koval. When mealtime is fraught with tension, no one looks forward to it.

One of the worst impediments to happy meals is a picky eater. It may be tempting to insist on a clean plate, vegetables and all, before dessert. But nutrition experts say such measures may harm more than help because they create a power struggle between parent and child. It's best not to make food a power issue at all. You can expect your kids to taste everything on the table, but if they find nothing appealing there but bread and milk, let them subsist for one meal on bread and milk. Or give them an easy alternative like a bowl of cereal or a PB&J.

Keep it human Turn off the TV and the radio; let the answering machine catch incoming phone calls; ignore the pager for the brief time the family is dining. Paul Entin of Lambertville, New Jersey, learned this lesson shortly after leaving an office job to work from home. When he and his wife, Shannon (who also has a home office), were dining early with their son, Logan, now 18 months old, Entin would often get business calls from clients in another time zone. "At first I'd leap up from the table to answer the phone," he says, "but I came to realize that dinner was usually over by five-thirty and that any unexpected call at five could wait a half hour. We feel very strongly that eating together helps create stability and consistency for Logan, and that's more important than answering the phone the second it rings."

Keep it together If both parents absolutely can't make it to the table, the one at home should sit down with the kids. And even babies should be invited. It doesn't matter that they're not participating in the actual conversation; they're listening, watching, and learning all the time. Involve older kids in the preparation and cleanup — even a 2-year-old can help clear the table. These opportunities to interact with adults and to help with the obligations can be big self-esteem builders for kids. They'll see that their contribution — both to conversation and to the functioning of the family — is crucial too.

Keep it a ritual Sometimes you have to play fast and loose with the timing (okay, 8 p.m. is a little late, but it's the best we can do tonight), the attendance (if Dad can't make it one evening, it's not a disaster), and the location of meals (yes, restaurants count, as long as they don't have a big-screen TV). But there should be predictable times each week when everyone sits down together. A single Sunday brunch isn't going to make up for a week of drive-through fast food, but if that brunch happens week in and week out, it will teach kids that family togetherness is something to expect.

"The sacrosanct family meal at our house is Saturday breakfast," says Mike Taylor, father of Alex, 9, and twins Ken and Chris, 6, in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. "We have dinner together as often as possible during the week, but Saturday morning is a time we can always count on." His wife, Kathy, leaves the cooking to Mike and the boys, who often pick seasonal fruits to blend with pancake batter, mixing up a huge helping of family solidarity at the same time.

Just keep it Any happy interaction is good for families, and eating together once or twice a week is better than nothing. But if you're going to try for family meals several times a week, the only real way to do it is to make it a priority. You may have to give up a few things, such as soccer practice or a project that means longer hours at work. "Far too many families use activities as the excuse for not being together, rather than seeing it as a choice of priorities they've made," says Billingham.

In the end, family meals benefit parents as much as kids. "Too much of the world saps our energy and our sense of closeness," says Koval. "We all need places like the dinner table where we feel safe and loved."

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