Food isn't the only healthy thing for kids at the dinner table, according to researcher Barbara Fiese, of Syracuse University. Her research found that the rituals and routines involved in family mealtimes not only contribute to the mental health of children, they also help establish a sense of family identity and provide a positive environment for problem solving.
Fiese said that family meals were about much more than just grabbing something to eat. "They are opportunities for family members to catch up on the day's events [and] problem solve around sensitive topics. These are not necessarily long elaborate gatherings, as most meals average 20 minutes. However, these are densely packed events where the symbolic meanings of family membership are often embedded," she explained.
She added that routines and rituals are critical to creating mealtime experiences that help families connect and function on a daily basis and develop strong memories that bond family members together, helping to support a sense of emotional well-being within the group.
Fiese's study, appearing in the journal New Directions in Child and Adolescent Development, suggests that the dinner table is one of the few places where open and direct communication can take place. Whether it is to seek advice, ask for permission to go on a trip or just to vent, family members often broach topics of importance at mealtimes. "The emotional bonds created during these repetitive gatherings are played over and over again in memory, contributing to a sense that individuals belong to a group that can be a safe refuge," Fiese said.
Continuity was another important aspect of the family mealtime that the study identified. Traditional dishes, recipes and blessings get passed down from one generation to the next, creating a shared, intergenerational continuity of rituals and sense of family identity. Continuity of routine is comforting not only because it establishes a predictable and regular environment; it prevents confusion and helps avert a conflict over who washes the dishes tonight, for example. Fiese emphasizes that planning is essential to maintaining continuity. She found that families who report more deliberate planning around mealtimes were less likely to report internalizing problems in their children and their children were also less likely to evidence problematic behaviors.
Finding time to gather at the dinner table can be challenging but Fiese offers a few tips to make these times rewarding for the entire family:
- Set a goal of having a family meal four times a week.
- Make one meal a week "children's choice" night.
- Keep marital spats away from the dinner table. Dinner is neither the time nor place to air complaints at spouses.
- Have everyone identify one good thing and one "not so good thing" that happened to them during the day. (This takes the pressure off anyone who had a particularly bad day).
Source: Syracuse University