February 26, 2022 10:42 pm

Karin

This is why family meals are freaking you out
And Why You Shouldn’t Feel Guilty

It’s early evening and you’re stuck at the office, again. You send hubby a quick text: 'Start dinner without me, I’ll join for dessert'. 

You secretly wish they’d wait, but the kids should be in bed within the hour. And you can’t ask them to wait three days in a row, just because you want to share a family meal.

Mum-guilt takes over. 'I should really start making more of an effort', you tell yourself. Being more disciplined and just leave work earlier. You can always catch up on things in the evening, after the kids are in bed.

Next day, you hit terrible traffic on the way home. Stress-levels shoot through the roof as you remember hubby is working the late shift tonight. Flustered you rush through the door and whip up a quick pasta. While the kids take their first bite, you’re off again; prepping bags and lunches, running a load and finishing that last email.

This isn’t right. Because the evening meal should be a relaxed family affair. You have fond memories of your own family dinners, always joking with dad, chatting away with siblings and fighting over that last chicken drumstick.

The importance of a shared family meal

You didn’t realise it then, but those dinners helped you through your formative years. It was a time when you got your parents’ undivided attention, when they weren’t pulled away by work, the housekeeping or caring for other children.

You want the same for your children. Sitting round the table for a delicious home cooked family meal. Enjoying each other’s company. Hearing a little about their day and what makes them tick.

Yes, you want to enjoy dinner together with your kids, but it seems an impossible task. You feel like you’re failing as a mum.

This is what is fuelling your mum-guilt

In recent years, we’ve been bombarded with studies indicating that regular family dinners make our kids happier, healthier and better students. They do better in school, are less likely to engage in risky behaviours and it sets them up for future healthy eating patterns.

For us parents, family dinners allow us to model behaviour, pass on cultural traditions (Larson et al., 2006) and engage in activities that promote literacy, learning, and healthy behavior (Larson, 2008).

Evidently, the statistics are mind-blowing and the message is clear: Any responsible parent should eat dinner together with their kids.

Give yourself a break

True, an overwhelming number of studies have suggested a positive link between regular family dinners and emotionally strong children.

However, when we dig deeper, we learn that most of these studies are limited and inconsistent.

  • For one, there isn’t a consensus on family meal frequency. As a result we're left completely in the dark regarding the minimum number of meals needed to get a positive outcome.
  • Neither does research explore whether it makes a difference if dinner is with two parents or one or whether the family meal even needs to be dinner. 
  • And they practically all focus on adolescents, thus side-stepping the important younger childhood years.

In fact, a more comprehensive study found little evidence for beneficial effects of a frequent family mealsuggesting that shared family meals might not be the cause of happier and healthier children after all.

So stop beating yourself up about not sitting at the table with your kids. Turns out that it’s an idealised picture and highly overrated.

Don’t Count The Things You Do, Do The Things That Count 

~Zig Ziglar

Now here comes the good part: You can reap the same rewards from different routines and rituals. 

So if daily family dinners just don’t work for you, forget about it!

Don’t get me wrong, we can’t just ignore all the positives of shared meals, but it seems we’ve been hung up on the wrong things. We need to shift focus.

  • Stop obsessing about dinner; the power behind dinner lies in the fact that it brings families together at a certain time and place at regular intervals.
  • Stop focusing on quantity, also look at the quality of the interaction. Just sitting together daily ‘because you should’, eating cheese on toast, won’t do you (nor your family) any good.

The truth is that any set of activities will do:

  • where the family comes together and spends quality time together;
  • where kids get to open up and speak freely, without shame or embarrassment;
  • where parents get the opportunity to understand what's really going on in their child’s life and give guidance;
  • what happens on some kind of regular basis.

Makes sense, right?

Now bear with me, because I’m going to show you how you can borrow these key elements and mold them into your own happy family routine.

Your powerful family ritual

Exciting, isn’t it?

You’ve been given free reign to come up with your own version of the sacred family dinner. Let’s start!

1. Pick a moment in the day or week, that you dedicate to your family 

This could be mealtime like breakfast, tea time or dinner*, but remember: it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t have to be hours either (the average family dinner lasts just 20 minutes Fiese & Schwartz, 2008).

All that really matters, is that you choose a time when you can give your undivided attention. So make sure the timing is practical for you. Think out of the box; car journeys to and from activities can provide a beautiful safe environment for your kids to open up.

*If dinner time works for you and you'd like a little help, read my blog 5 Simple strategies for regular family dinners

2. Turn it into a routine

This means the event should be recurring and happening at regular intervals. It could be daily, weekly, every other Friday etc.

Think morning swims, afternoon strolls, weekly game nights, monthly camping trips, everything goes!

3. Treat your ritual with respect

If you’re a planner, block it in your diary. You’re building a safe environment for the family, so make sure everybody can trust the routine.

4. Life changes, so do your routines 

Feel free to adapt to the realities of life, add and skip elements or change routines all together when you feel it’s time.

When my kids were babies, bath and bedtime was our most sacred ritual. Later I’d organise my lunch break around school pick-up, so I could enjoy quality time during our 30min car journey. Today, it’s the Saturday morning, where we lazy around in our pyjamas, bake pancakes, and have a long leisurely brunch together.

5. Add another family ritual

It’s easier than you think. You probably already have a couple on the go without realising. Mix smaller daily rituals with longer weekly and monthly ones. 

For me it’s the daily drop off and story at bedtime. Every Wednesday afternoon is mummy day, Friday afternoons daddy day, we eat dinner together four times a week, Saturday mornings we bake pancakes. Once a month we plan a weekend away, either to visit friends, family or go camping. Wow, that’s quite some regular family time right there!

Well done, super mum

I know your battle all too well. You already feel like you’ve failed, even before sitting down at the table.

But a small shift in focus can make all the difference. Don’t pressure yourself into sharing daily dinners, but focus on spending quality time with your family instead.

Here’s all you have to do: Invest a little thinking time to create your own powerful family routine. One that works for you, no matter what all the studies say. One that leaves you feeling confident as a working mother instead of inadequate.

Try it and see what happens. It will feel like going on a family adventure. Leave room for spontaneity and feel free to change routines as relationships grow and develop.

And then one Sunday afternoon, while the kids set up the board for family game night, you find yourself smiling. You feel relaxed and proud. You’ve created a small safe haven in space and time. You came up with your own sacred family event. One that everybody eagerly anticipates.

Well Done, Super Mum.

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About the Author

I'm a food loving working mum who supports other parents taking the stress out of dinner time.

Having two young children with table manners and great appetite, I'm always being eyed as some mystical mama with a secret sauce up her sleeve.

Now, I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I've learned a few things over the 10 years I've been cooking for and with my family. And I'd love to share them with you, because every parent deserves stress-free, healthy, delicious and most importantly FUN family mealtimes.

Get my Insanely Useful Meal Planner for Busy Parents and instantly make mealtimes easier!

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