Can a Family Still Find Time to Eat Together?
Most parents seem to agree that frequent meals together are a great way for family members to spend time together. But vast numbers of 21st century parents report that the family meal in their households all too often falls victim to their daily race against the clock.
Sitting down together for a family meal requires time. It is time, though, that often is in short supply for the contemporary family.
Maria Sophia Aguirre, an economics professor at The Catholic University of America, cites evidence showing not only that parents, but children too, want their family members to eat together regularly. However, time constraints block families from achieving this goal.
“Households today are more conscious of time. They keep track of it continuously, live within a tight schedule and rush about more,” Aguirre has written. In this context, families are “reducing the frequency with which they sit down together to share meals.” Unfortunately, eating on the run also places “the nutritional value of meals in the home” at risk, she suggests.
The barriers standing in the way of evening family meals include long working hours for parents, after-school activities for children, income constraints and long commutes, according to Aguirre. She comments:
“Long working hours and short school hours combined with a myriad of extracurricular activities are not conducive to frequent family dinners.”
The Home Renaissance Foundation, which promotes recognition of the work needed to create healthy home environments, lists Aguirre among its directors. As an economist, she is convinced of the need for interdisciplinary research that “will lead to a greater awareness of the importance of the work of the home.”
The length of the workday “requires immediate attention,” she said in a 2007 paper. She encouraged more “flexible working hours for men and women, work sharing” and policies allowing “parents, especially mothers, to work from their homes some days of the week.”
“Frequent family dinners strengthen family relations,” says Aguirre.
A Cardinal’s Recollections
Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley recently described the family meals of his childhood home. In a late-2011 pastoral letter, he wrote:
“I look back at my own childhood and recall how we gathered each evening for dinner — the children, my parents and my grandmother, who lived with us. It was a time of lively exchange when we recounted both the sad and funny things that may have happened during the day.”
His family “shared ideas and aspirations” during these dinnertimes together, Cardinal O’Malley recalled. “But most important, it was a time to share ourselves.” He said prayer always was part of these family meals, “with grace before meals and often the rosary afterward.”
As a child, he “would rather have been many places such as playing outside or visiting friends,” the cardinal acknowledged. But looking back, he realizes “that those dinners with the O’Malley clan are where we discovered our identity and forged bonds that have lasted a lifetime.”
He wrote that during these family dinners “we shared our own stories, and our individual stories were woven into a history that we shared together.”
“Being a Parent Today”
British Father Stephen Wang discusses the family meal in a new booklet he edited for parents titled “Being a Parent Today: Children, Faith and Family Life” (Catholic Truth Society).
“Eating together, each day, without the TV or computer on” gives children time with their parents and time with each other, Father Wang writes. He says that family meals allow parents “to listen, to talk and to share things.” These mealtimes give “rhythm and regularity to each day, and to the week,” which is important for children, he says.
Moreover, when a family takes time to eat together, “it puts the brakes on the constant rushing of modern life,” Father Wang believes. He is a theologian and dean of studies in London at the Westminster Archdiocesan seminary, and he authors a blog titled “Bridges and Tangents.”
For many people, the family meal today is a challenge, he observes. “There are activities after school,” for example. Another complicating factor surfaces when a parent’s job shift means that he or she is away from home at the very time the family might gather for a meal.
In addition, perhaps “the children want to go out, or do homework, or watch TV.” Or the simple fact may be that a family is “not in the habit of eating like this, and it seems like a big hassle to force everyone to sit together.” But, Father Wang insists, “the long-term benefits are absolutely huge.”
Father Wang hopes his new booklet helps mothers and fathers think about the “amazing vocation” they have as parents. He realizes that being a parent “is not about learning a set of rules and putting them into practice like a robot. It’s about living in the messy reality of everyday life. It’s about loving your children as best you can.”
His booklet contains not only his reflections, but those of numerous mothers and fathers, and a few deacons, priests and other lay people. One of those he consulted said:
“It’s definitely worth making time to talk with your children and to listen to them — each day if possible. The best times are when you are just doing things together or in the same space (but not when the TV is on)” — for example, when “cooking, washing the dishes, walking the dog, having supper together.”