October marks the national Eat Better, Eat Together Month. You probably didn’t know such a month existed. I didn’t. But with today’s busy lifestyles, eating together (or staying engaged with each other and not our devices) seems like a dying art. This month we’ll explore the mental, academic, physical, and spiritual benefits of eating together.
I Need My Phone!
“Why can’t we have our phones?” a student whined as he sat down at the picnic table.
“Look around you,” I said. “You’re camping in a beautiful place. Why do you need your phone? Especially during breakfast.”
“He just wants to check his TikTok,” another student chimed in.
“Nooo. I just want to take pictures when we go on our hike.”
“You don’t get your phones during meals at school,” I reminded him.
“Why not?” one of the girls asked.
“Because during meals, we need to take time to socialize and talk to each other,” I said.
“I don’t like talking in the morning. I’d rather have my phone.”
“I understand,” I say. “I like to have my phone when I eat lunch so I can read. But when I eat meals with someone, I try to keep my phone in my pocket.”
“Yeah, we can’t have our phones out when we come over to your house for faculty family nights,” one of our faculty family kids chimed in.
“Unless we need to check facts on the Internet,” I said.
“But can I have my phone during classes this morning so I can take photos?” the first student brought us all back to his primary concern. “I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon before, and I want to take pictures.”
I laughed. “Yes. You’ll get your phones after breakfast—but only for taking photos.”
The whole conversation made me think about how life has changed in the last 40 years.
Life Before Smartphones
My earliest memories involve eating meals together. My dad making Mickey Mouse pancakes for breakfast or my mom serving split pea soup and fresh bread for supper. At lunchtime, we ate peanut butter and raisin sandwiches (or sometimes peanut butter and sweet onion sandwiches) and listened to Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story on the radio.
As we grew older, we packed sack lunches for school and our family meals dropped to two a day. My mom had a catering business and, at times, provided hot lunch at the schools I attended. We always had leftovers to heat up and eat together.
I don’t remember deep conversations or parents who asked us to share our highs and lows. But the six of us spent time at the table together. My mom, a dietitian, made sure we ate healthy, vegetarian meals. We rarely ate out at restaurants (most likely because we didn’t have money for such an indulgence). Our family could have been the poster family for eat better, eat together month. (With the exception of the short phase where my parents substituted carob for chocolate. I’d like to purge that phase from my memory and tastebuds).
Pedro and I valued eating together as a family, so once we had children, we strove to have family meals. Unfortunately, as our girls grew older, sports involvement, snarly pre-teen hormones, and stressed parents changed the dynamics of family dinner. At times, the table felt more like a battleground than the idyllic eat better, eat together concept.
Eat Better, Eat Together?
Despite the turmoil at the table, we continued to eat meals together. If we could have a do-over on raising our children, we would spend more time working on our conversational skills. Using the precious family time to ask about highs and lows, dreams and aspirations, and their problems and solutions.
What happens at the dinner table has just as much importance as when gets served. A 2012 study (completed and published after our girls had left home for college) reports on how eating together helps children avoid depression, eating disorders, and substance abuse.
Not only do families eat better when they eat together, but they have also improved mental health. Especially if the adults try to cultivate a positive mealtime environment. Smartphones don’t make us smarter—they make us more isolated.Smartphones don't make us smarter–they make us more isolated. Learn how to eat together as a family again! #eatbettereattogethermonth #family Click To Tweet
Mealtimes provide an opportunity to check in with each family member. When we spend quality time with each other, we notice signs of depression or eating disorders. We provide a sense of belonging and community. Eating together provides a wall of defense against the modern marauders of social isolation and busyness.
Hacks to Help You Start (or Improve) Family Mealtimes
I won’t claim to have the corner on perfect mealtimes (or raising perfect children in the best way). But the information I’ve gleaned has helped me improve our family mealtimes (even though most meals our family consists of two). My student had it right, though, we don’t allow phones at the table.
1. Participant Buy-in
Depending on the age of your children, you may have to work to gain participant buy-in for having family meals together. If you have school-aged children, ask if they’d like to get better grades without doing any homework or studying more.
Research shows the more meals school-aged children and teens eat with their families, the higher their grades will be. Their grades might not improve overnight, but over time, the increased interaction with the family will have a lasting impact on their academics.
The one caveat? Turning in their electronics will make the time most effective.
2. What Happens Matters
Having a device-free zone plays a huge part in the effectiveness of family mealtime. Adults might find it just as hard as teens to have a device-free zone. But we do need to set a good example.
Start by having a set of conversational gambits up your sleeve. First, let everyone know there will be just one conversation going on during the meal. Why? With one conversation everyone has a chance to hear and be heard.
We don’t let everyone in the classroom talk at once because we want to teach good listening skills. The same goes for the dinner table. Try some of these questions.
- Tell me your favorite part of your day.
- What do you like the most about _____ (your job, school, vacation, church, etc)?
- If you could spend a day with anyone, who would you spend it with and what would you do?
- If you could go anywhere in the world for two weeks, where would you go, and why?
3. Involve Everyone in the Questioning
As your family gets more adept at conversations, have each member write questions on slips of paper and put them in a jar. Draw one question at the start of every meal. If your five-year-old thinks of a question, treat it with the same respect you would a question from your fifteen-year-old.
Just make sure everyone asks open-ended questions. Questions with only two possible answers don’t lead to interesting conversations. If you’ve ever felt frustrated with monosyllabic answers from a teenager, analyze your questions.
4. The Sandwich Method
You can ask each member to share a sandwich summary of their day—a high, a low, and a high. The highs (or positives) act as the bread in a sandwich. The low goes in the middle. Ending on the positive note helps stave off the tendency to only focus on the bad while at the same time acknowledging that bad things happen.
Follow up questions or statements for the low in the sandwich summary include:
- How did that make you feel?
- I’m so sorry that happened to you. Do you need a hug?
- What would you do differently next time?
- Would you like help or advice from the rest of us?
Over the years, I’ve learned my helpful advice may not come across as helpful. Allowing family members the option of listening helps build trust and develops critical thinking skills in youngsters. If your kids haven’t done this kind of exercise before, it may take a while for them to catch on. Don’t give up. Good dinner conversation provides the glue that helps keep families stuck together through the hard times.
5. Limit the Background Stuff
To take full advantage of eating together, experts suggest turning off the television and lowering the volume of the music. Your kids won’t believe you want family time if they must compete with the latest lyrics or the news during a meal.
As often as possible, eat meals prepared at home. I call take-out and fast food ‘background stuff,’ too. If you want to join in the eat better, eat together month, plan far enough in advance to skip the usual takeout, and prepare a home-cooked meal. You don’t have to spend hours slaving away in the kitchen, either. Simple works, too. I love Taylor Farms Teriyaki Stir Fry kits with noodles. In ten minutes, I can put a healthy, home-cooked meal on the table. I usually add some scrambled eggs or tofu for protein.
While takeout serves its purpose, a meal prepared at home usually has less fat, more nutrition, and the aftertaste of love lingers for decades. Even if your family doesn’t like what you prepared. I still don’t like split-pea soup, but just thinking about it brings back a warm glow from my childhood.
What tips do YOU have for eating together as a family?