Why family dinners are worth the effort, but not the stress

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A few months ago, I found myself in one of those parenting moments where you painfully realise… this isn’t working.

My twin girls — aged four — aren’t particularly good at sitting still and eating. They do it without fuss at childcare, but the moment they step across the threshold of their own home, they regress, turning into a pair of monkeys at feeding time.

We’ve tried all kinds of techniques to get them to focus. Eating with the TV on, eating at the colouring-in table, sitting on the kitchen bench, sitting on the couch.

Then one day we truly hit the low-water mark. The girls were propped up in their beds, each clutching their own tablet as I shuffled around to each of them, spooning cheesy macaroni into their mouths. While moving from one child to the other, I tripped on the rug.

The macaroni fell to the floor and the dog quickly devoured it. He looked at me. I looked at him. No words were exchanged, of course, and yet we both knew in 10 minutes time he would throw up that macaroni on the very rug I’d just tripped on.

I woke up the next day, determined. That evening we would eat a proper family meal, at the table. There would be placemats and cloth napkins, conversation, and music in the background.

This was what we’d done when I was growing up. All members of the family ate together at the table promptly at 7pm. My sister and I were required to set the table. Everyone had their own silver napkin ring.

My father insisted on character-building classical music in the background as we ate — often Wagner (it’s a miracle he didn’t build the kinds of characters intent on invading Poland). And we engaged in conversation of the “How was your day?” variety.

The image of sitting down to a weekday family meal around a table, with table cloth, candles, music and relaxed, meaningful conversation flowing among siblings and parents is an intoxicating one.

Top down photo of various Asian side dishes and plates, representing the idealised image of a family dinner.
Joyous family dinners every night sound idyllic, but is it actually possible — or always enjoyable?

And extensive research suggests it’s worth the effort. There appear to be three main benefits from regular family meals: improved relationships between family members, improved nutrition and eating habits, and improved social behaviour among children.

American psychologists seem particularly obsessed with the power of family meals to tackle social problems. One American author wrote a book in the 1990s claiming having regular family meals can eliminate teen eating disorders, improve children’s grades, reduce the incidence of drug abuse, teen pregnancy and smoking, and even expand toddlers’ vocabulary.

I don’t quite know how family mealtimes can tackle teen pregnancies (pass the butter and put on the condom?). But as a social researcher I am fascinated with how we view everyday rituals and the perceived impact they have on our lives.

About a decade ago, I was commissioned to conduct a large study of more than 1,000 Australians on perceptions about family meals times. It found that we do value family mealtimes and believe that they strengthen family communication, improve nutrition and reinforce rules about good manners.

While close to 80 per cent of those surveyed said they mostly ate family meals together, around 59 per cent usually ate at the dinner table during the week and only 46 per cent ate at the table over the weekend. And only 10 per cent of those surveyed never had the TV on during the meal.

Re-reading this research, I was beginning to feel a little better about mealtimes at my place.

Mother tickling laughing toddler while sitting on their lap to depict the happy side of family time.
“I do think judging the quality of family relationships with reference to rituals, like family meals at a table, can be a somewhat imperfect measure.”