I know what the research says. Family dinner is important – especially for families with teenagers. Teens who eat with their family regularly are less likely to drink, do drugs, and have sexually active friends. Sounds great. Yet, as our children have gotten older, we have found it increasingly difficult to make family dinner a nightly occurrence. In fact, we’ve found it hard to find the time to sit down and eat together more than once or twice a week.
Kids’ schedules and work schedules seem to keep us coming and going at different times. Our kitchen table, now too small to comfortably seat a family with three teens and a tween, had become more a place to do homework and pay bills than a place to eat.
So we got rid of it. And that has changed everything.
A few months ago my husband and I replaced our kitchen table with big comfy chairs and a round coffee table. The chairs are draped with warm blankets, and the table is littered with puzzles, books, school papers, and magazines.
[Related: An alternative to the frenetic and difficult goal of sitting down at night to share a meal.]
Since we adopted this arrangement, our family time starts early every day. We all gather in the kitchen first thing in the morning, bleary eyed and quiet, sipping our coffee (yes, all but the youngest drink coffee). Eventually conversations start. What’s going on today? Who has practice? Who has a test? Be sure to grab a sweater. Don’t forget to sign my permission slip. Now instead of shouting down the hall or yelling reminders on the way out the door, all the ordinary business and busyness of the day, starts in cozy chairs and in easy conversations between sips of coffee.
When my husband gets home from work in the evening, we are all there again – at least on the nights we don’t have to be at a game or a meeting. While I cook dinner (or we scrounge for leftovers) we talk. How was work? How did your algebra test go? When’s the next football practice? Band concert? Volleyball game? We all talk about the boring, mundane details of our days. The kids tell us funny things that happened at school. We tell them funny things that happened twenty years ago. We talk about what’s happening in the world or in our town. How we feel. What we think. What we believe. And everyone has to tell the very best and the very worst thing that happened to them that day – their high and their low.
At some point while all this hanging out is going on, we eat – not always all at the same time. Sometimes bowls of pasta or helpings of casserole are consumed in shifts, but always in the kitchen and always together.
Before the current kitchen arrangement, if we weren’t all on the same schedule, we tended to eat and run. One child might eat at 5:00 then head off to do homework. Another might come in from band practice at 6:00 and take a plate to her room. If my husband came home late from work, it wasn’t uncommon for him to come home to leftovers on the stove and an empty kitchen.
Now we linger. The kitchen is the hangout. If we are home, we are likely in the kitchen – talking, reading, doing homework, and of course, eating.
Sure, we have a living room. There are soft chairs in the living room too. It’s a great place for a family movie or for watching a football game. But the kitchen is the gathering spot. We gravitate to the kitchen because there is something about eating that is communal. Bowls of soup, loaves of bread, pot roast, fried chicken, a sandwich, a slice of pie, or a hot cup of coffee. There’s just something about food and family that leads to conversations that don’t happen in other rooms in the house. Even if we don’t all eat at the same time, rarely does anyone eat alone.
It’s true that family dinner is important, but there’s nothing magic about a dinner table. The power of the family dinner to have a positive impact on children lies in the conversations and the bonding that occur over meals. Our cozy kitchen arrangement encourages more of those conversations.
I should point out that we aren’t Barbarians. We still believe very much in table manners and in forks-on-the-left, please-pass-the-potatoes, proper sit-down meals, so once or twice a week we still make an effort to eat in the dinning room. And as it turns out, all that eating off our laps in the kitchen, makes family dinner at the dining table even more special. More of an event.
Of course our casual kitchen arrangement would never have worked when our kids were small. Serving spaghetti and mac and cheese to toddlers and young children requires sturdy chairs, solid surfaces, and the absence of throw pillows. But now that our children are older and busier, having an eating space that is also our hanging out space has been life changing. Our kitchen is the geographical center of our family. Hanging out there has given us more time together and opened us up to more conversations with our kids than we ever had crowded around our little dinner table. It might be informal. It might be unconventional. But turning our kitchen into the family hangout spot has definitely brought us closer together – and that’s what family dinners are all about.