It is one of my clearest memories from twelfth grade (apart from the one I mention at the end of this article). It was my final year of high school but my first year at Ancaster Public High School. I was in sociology class when the teacher asked this: How many people here eat dinner as a family at least twice a week? Two of us put up hands—me and the only other Christian in the class. Everyone else told about how their family scattered all over the house, clustering around the various televisions. It shocked me, as I had only ever known family dinners. It hadn’t occurred that there could be another way.
Eating dinner together was a tradition Aileen and I adopted and, with only occasional exceptions, is one we maintain today. Here are some reasons we prioritize eating together.
It Keeps Us Healthy
Eating family meals is associated with physical health, and we eat together as a means to keep the family healthy. One recent study found that children who do not eat with their parents at least twice a week are forty percent more likely to be obese. This may be because the family eats restaurant food instead of home-cooked food; I heard last week that restaurant food tends to have 60% more calories than a home-cooked meal. Or it may be because the children are left to prepare their own meals and gravitate toward what is convenient—almost always prepared food that is low on nutrients and high in calories. When we eat together, we eat the same food, and Aileen is careful to prepare meals that are both nutritious and delicious (though, to be fair, the kids aren’t always as convinced as we are about the deliciousness of the meals…).
It Keeps Us Relationally Healthy
Because of our busy schedules we can usually only manage to guarantee one meal all together each day. When we eat this meal, we try to make sure that it has relational value, not just nutritional value. It is here that we are able to slow down and just talk as a family. It is here that we talk about what we experienced that day and what plans we have for the next day. We sit and talk about whatever is interesting or important to us—the girls hear the experience of their brother as he navigates high school, while he hears about my workday, and Aileen tells us what she did that day. It keeps us in-touch with one another and adds to our relational health. While we might all prefer to grab a plate and go, there is value in inconveniencing ourselves for the sake of the others.
It Keeps Us Spiritually Healthy
Eating together is also an important part of our family’s spiritual health. Through the years we have found it nearly impossible to carry on family devotions unless we eat together—we just do not have the opportunity or the discipline to create the opportunity. And so we closely associate eating together with family devotions. We begin our meals by praying to thank God for his provision. We end our meals by reading a short passage of the Bible together, talking about it, and praying once more to ask God’s blessing on us. This is a critical part of our family’s spiritual health and training. Slowly, day by day and year after year, the kids are exposed to God and his Word through these short times of worship.
It Keeps Us Financially Healthy
Eating out is expensive, and perhaps more so here in Canada than elsewhere. Eating prepared food is also expensive, and especially when accounting for many and varied tastes. By far the most financially-healthy solution is to prepare our own food, to eat the same thing, and to eat it together. Aileen plans well, shops carefully, uses what she buys, and cooks us meals that are both great and economical.
It Keeps Us Behaviorally Healthy
Okay, so I may be pushing a little too hard on the “healthy” theme here, but let me explain what I mean. Study after study shows a correlation between eating alone and rebellion, so that teens who do not eat with their families are many times more likely to be involved in drinking and drugs and other destructive behavior. While eating family meals is no guarantee against rebellion, it does provide a means to prevent, detect, and respond to it. The author of one study writes, “While substance abuse can strike any family, regardless of ethnicity, affluence, age, or gender, the parental engagement fostered at the dinner table can be a simple, effective tool to help prevent it.”
And so we eat together as often as possible and try to make the most of it. Now let’s be clear and realistic—we are a pack of sinners, just like every other family, and we are busy, just like every other family. Sometimes we cannot eat together, sometimes we are rushed and don’t have time to read the Bible together. Sometimes we can barely stand the sight of each other, the conversation tiptoes along the edge of civility, and the kids seem to want to rip each other’s heads off. But we measure long, not short, and continue to eat together night after night. We continue to count it a great blessing.