In Defense of Those Who Miss Family Dinners (or, In Other News, Don’t Worry About Taking Vitamins)

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.

Family time is crucial. Does it have to take place at dinnertime?
Family time is crucial. Does it have to take place at dinnertime?

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.

This article also appeared in the Good Men Project online men’s magazine. See here.

11 thoughts on “In Defense of Those Who Miss Family Dinners (or, In Other News, Don’t Worry About Taking Vitamins)

  1. I’m not 100% with you on this one. Coaching your kids team and planning activities to spend “quality time” with your kids or your spouse is not the same as sitting together around the table sharing a meal. At sports practice and other planned activities, you are focused on the activity, not the individual. When you are all seated together at the table, there are no distractions or interruptions, you can sit quietly and have a conversation directly with your spouse or your children. You can ask specific questions that pertain to their day to day life…friends, activities, school work, etc. I’m fortunate enough to be a stay at home dad now, I think one of the biggest problems in this country is the fact that in many, many homes both parents work. The less time you spend with your children, the less time you have to instill in them the morals and values that you feel are important for them to have.

  2. There are always choices folks have to make these days because of the costs involved in raising families. I am blessed that my wife prioritized staying home which enables me to work the career muscle. I also work for a great company that rewards performance and values work life balance.

  3. So maybe you are just arguing for time together? Maybe it is breakfasts together or snacks together, but you are arguing for together time. I agree it doesn’t have to be dinner BUT I do not agree that coaching someone’s team is the same as the family unit hanging out and spending time together. I believe it is important as a unit to be just yourselves regularly – not programmed, not busy, just sharing life together.

    • Hi Barb- Thanks for reading and commenting!

      I must not have stated my point well enough here as you are not the first to ask for a clarification. I do agree with you, and tried to say that the substitute for family dinners (if schedules do not permit them), is unstructured time together.

      The example I gave of my friend was true for him, and he does log a lot of unstructured family time with his family as well as coaching.

      Again, thanks for commenting, and, even though this is a fatherhood blog, ladies are always welcome!!!

  4. Scott,

    I think your blog is great, but I disagree. I think dinner is the most important meeting of the day for a family. This is really the daily reinforcement of the family unit.

    A family that doesn’t meet regularly for dinner, may be lacking in this structure. Family dinner also represents a prioritization by the members. If Dad and Mom can’t make it, then how can the kids prioritize this dinner, especially when they are teenagers.

    I think corporate America has done a good job of minimizing the importance of family dinner in an effort to pay lower wages. If a Dad or Mom needs to miss dinner with their families on a regular basis, they should get paid enough to pay for the counsel when their family starts to have issues. Obviously the cost of losing your family structure cannot be offset by any amount of money.

    But corporate America has convinced us otherwise. Wellness and work life programs are often mere internal marketing and recruitment mechanisms. What is the true cost of missing time with your family due to corporate travel, late meetings, or deadline projects?

    We tend to discount this cost, and accept the peer pressure and propaganda of corporate America…”it’ll pay off one day”…”this us what it takes to get ahead”… And my favorite and most ironic, “I’m doing this for my family”

    We all need to wake up and stop discounting our time and our time with our families. Companies are paying wholesale for our time.

    Corporate Wellness and work life initiatives are mostly BS. If these companies valued family time, you would get 2x pay for corporate travel. You would get overtime pay for dinner time meetings…

    The family dinner is sacred. I’ve learned this through my own folly during my selfish pursuit of the corporate “promise”.

    My time now, especially during dinner, is at a premium. No stock options or performance rating are fair enough compensation for this time.

    • Brian-
      I totally understand what you are saying. (And thanks for reading and contributing- your comment is very brave and well-written).

      I have several posts in the works discussing the need to prioritize and simplify. Too many people, in their pursuits for more, and too many companies in requiring more and more, lose sight as to what is really important. Kids need time with dad more than more stuff!

      Maybe when I get close to posting them, I can reach out to you for your thoughts.

      I still maintain that most of the benefits of dinnertime can be recovered with sufficient unstructured time, but it’s just my opinion.


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