A nurse stands outside her car after a long shift at the hospital, exhausted and hungry. It’s nearly seven in the evening, and she just knows that her two pre-teens won’t have left the meat out to thaw. She fidgets with her keys, thinking; she could either head to McDonald’s to pick up a quick meal or commit to driving to the grocery store and cooking something healthier to eat with her children. She opens the car door and, as she turns the key, resigns herself to another night of greasy McNuggets eaten in front of the television. After a long day on her feet in the ER, she simply doesn’t have the time or energy to cook a meal at home.
Unfortunately, today’s frenetic working culture has rendered home-cooked family dinners into more of a holiday tradition than an everyday occurrence. According to a survey conducted by the Harris Poll, Matures and Baby Boomers are considerably more likely to sit down for a family meal four or more days per week than Gen X or Millennials. Moreover, the same survey found that those families with children are 10% less likely to share family-style meals multiple times per week than those without. It can’t be denied: Family meals are slipping from tradition to rarity as parents and children alike begin taking their meals separately.
But the question is, why? Moreover, should we care?
The answer to the former may be exhaustion, lack of time, lack of money, or a mixture of all three. Statistics provided by the OECD show that the average American worked 1,786 hours in 2015, or roughly 35 hours per week. That’s a full-time job – and for working parents, the effort doesn’t end with the punch of a timecard. After clocking out, tired parents still need to feed, play, and check in with their children. As with the mother in the above scenario, it may be more feasible to simply pick up some fast food after a late shift, drop it on the counter for the kids, and try to relax before starting the whole process over the next day. Moreover, some working parents don’t have the money to spend on a family-style meal every night; for them, fast food presents a quick, cheap alternative to home-cooked dinners.
With this in mind, the gradual fade of family meals from commonality makes an unfortunate sort of sense. However, I would argue that taking meals together shouldn’t be reserved for special occasions and that despite the added time and energy it requires, parents should make having family dinner at least three times a week a priority.
Hear me out; regardless of whether the food is home-cooked, fast, or even frozen, family dinners present an opportunity for children and parents to spend an hour or so together in conversation. By taking meals together, families build a foundation of trust and keep current on the lives of its members beyond rote questions about work and school. But planning family dinners offers far more than a chance for pleasant dialogue; some studies show a correlation between regular family dinners and a child’s long-term behavioral health. According to the Center on Addiction, children who have 5-7 family meals per week are 1.5 times more likely to report a positive relationship with a parent. Those who reported not having a good relationship with their parents (a sub-group dominated by those who rarely take meals as a unit) were found to be twice as likely to try alcohol, and nearly four times as likely to try marijuana. All of the children in this test group were between the ages of twelve and seventeen.
Think about that – regularly planned family meals could potentially make all the difference in a fourteen-year-old child’s choice to stay away from drinking and drugs in high school. Letting these dinners drift into ceremony and holiday tradition is an oversight that we simply cannot afford. The trick, I think, will be to reconcile the need for family interaction with the exhaustion, busy schedules, and tight budgets that most parents face daily.
Let’s return to the nurse in the opening scenario for a moment. Exhausted, she knows that her children won’t have thought to defrost the meat – but what if they had? If all family members are invested in the making and sharing of meals, the burden of their preparation can be shifted out to be lighter for everyone. Planning and preparing cost-effective meals as a unit will make food prep a bonding activity, inspire gratitude across the table, and teach children to be thoughtful of their parents’ efforts. Taking the time out of a busy day to sit down for a meal is vital for every family, regardless of whether the food on the table comes from the kitchen or out of a cardboard to-go box.