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 ok. 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 ok 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.