An old French proverb states, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Although it may not apply to everything in life, it’s important when it comes to sharing meals together as a family. Do you recall the Norman Rockwell prints where two, three or more generations gathered around a table filled with healthy food? The artist captured expressions of happiness, respect and joy by simply being together. By the mid-twentieth century, this setting became less common. Instead of gathering around the table for the evening meal, we may find ourselves in drive-bys, waiting in line at a fast food restaurant while connecting with someone by cell phone.
However, a recent Gallup Poll reports that family dining is still a part of everyday life for the majority of U.S. parents. Fifty-three percent of adults with children younger than 18 say their family eats dinner together at home six or seven nights a week. But what about those who do not observe this ritual? Could this percentage be increased?
In interviewing Midwestern pastors, it’s good to see that family meals at their home are the norm — instead of the exception. It is a given: lessons learned around the family table bring warmth and security to children and teens. And this feeling carries over into adulthood, when they have families of their own. Consider these lessons children learn while sharing family meals.
Lesson #1: Meals Create Sibling Closeness
Richard Wakefield, former director of missions for the Wright-Douglas-Ozark Baptist Association in Missouri believes sharing meals together gave his children a sense of closeness.
“Our time together at the table paid off,” says Wakefield. “Now as adults, I see this in their love for each other.”
“As they ate, they talked,” he added. “We encouraged them to take the lead and they knew Mom and Dad were ready to listen. Of course, as they became older, we had to allow for sports and school activities. But it had to be a very good excuse to miss our evening meal around the table. In reading about breakdowns with families, I believe parents are missing an important time for setting an example of what a Christian home should be.”
He and his late wife, Mary, raised three boys, a girl and a foster son.
“We never knew how many of their friends would show up for a meal,” Wakefield recounted. “My wife would say, ‘There’s always room for another plate.’ And somehow there was always enough food to go around.”
He jokingly added, “Could this have been another loaves and fishes miracle”
Communication and confidence in expressing opinions increase. In a safe family setting, children grow in their ability to connect and learn from each other. Not only do siblings and parents share information, but they develop a feeling of belonging and that their opinions matter.
Lesson #2: Family Meals Help Parents and Children Connect
In Bellevue, Neb., Chandler Acres Baptist Pastor Dan Wills and his wife, Cathy, continued the tradition of how they were raised. Family meals helped them know what was going on in the lives of their three sons and daughter.
“In addition to a limitless supply of food for athletic-prone kids, our meals together were a time to discuss school work and special projects where parents and children could work together,” says Wills. “One of our rules was this: no arguments at the table. Just nip it in the bud! Then, there was no eating in your rooms at mealtime. We ate together around the family table.”
Wills spoke of using this time together for spiritual training, also. He is often reminded of the advice given to parents in Proverbs 22:6: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”
Lesson #3: Family Meals Encourage a Wholesome Lifestyle
According to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, children who eat at least five meals per week with their family are at lower risk of developing poor eating habits, weight problems or alcohol and substance dependencies and tend to perform better in school than those who frequently eat alone or away from home.
Could it be that when families spend more time together they have more positive relationships? In planning family meals, there is more time to stay aware of what is going on in their children’s lives. A healthy relationship — of love and respect — between parents and children is a constructive approach to a wholesome lifestyle.
Lesson #4: Family Meals Develop Communication Skills
Through this nightly event, children and adults exchange ideas. Not only does it promote family togetherness, but the children learn good communication skills that will continue throughout life.
“Evening meals are always shared together,” says Tom Hendrix, a retired businessman in Tennessee. “We have a practice that everyone has to bring something new they have learned to the table. That can be about literature, world or local news, historical events — anything they have read or researched recently.”
Sharing time together as a family brings many rewards. It can bring siblings closer, build stronger bonds between parents and children, encourage a wholesome lifestyle and develop communication skills. Some things should never change.
Carolyn Tomlin is co-author of “The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister” and teaches the Boot Camp for Christian Writers.