I was part of a discussion a while back and someone asked how we manage to stay connected with our children, since we have more than a few of them. I thought about it and came to two conclusions. The first is since we homeschool, I get to see our children and interact with them for much of the day. But if a family doesn't homeschool, this isn't really a terribly helpful answer. The second conclusion was having a routine of eating dinner together every night.
I realize that more and more people struggle to share dinner all together as a family, but I would strongly encourage you to begin to create the habit. This is especially true if your children are younger. If you begin now, it will be easier to keep it going when the teen years (and their accompanying crazy schedules) hit. Of course, if your children are older, you can still start, it will just be a little trickier.
Why should you?
I'll share what I see as the positives. First, it provides a daily routine that children (and frankly, adults) thrive on. Dinner together happens every single night. They can expect it. They can know that they will see everyone (or nearly everyone) at that time of day. There is no wondering when or how food will arrive. To eat dinner together every night creates a safe and predictable environment which is especially important for children who are coming from less than ideal circumstances.
Having dinner together also provides a chance to reconnect with family if various members have been apart. To operate as a family, the family members need to spend time together and share experiences. As children get older and their schedules become busier, this can be more and more difficult to do. It is important to set apart a time where everyone is together. It nurtures relationships not only between parent and child, but between brothers and sisters as well.
By eating together, you will also all eat better. While, having to feed more than yourself requires a little more planning, it also means that the meal was thought about. It has been documented in many studies that families who eat together have a better and more varied diet. In the long run, it'a healthier to eat together.
Of course, someone has to cook the meal. That, too, is often a matter of learning and habit. While it can feel intimidating and overwhelming to cook every night of the week, it is actually quite a doable thing once you get the hang of it. It is a learned skill. Like every learned skill, it must be practiced in order to develop. If you are not in the habit of cooking every night, it will take a little work to become automatic and not feel like a big deal. But I will tell you, it does eventually become pretty automatic. I don't think very hard about feeding between 9 to 12 people every night and it's not because I'm some super chef or super mom. I've just had a lot of practice. No super human skills are needed to be able to do this.
Finally, for family dinners to work, you need your family on board and both parents need to see it as important. You need to be willing to make the hard choices early on that outside activities (in general, we have always made exceptions when we felt it necessary) do not trump dinner. If something conflicted with dinner, the choice to participate was easy, we just said no. This, too, becomes a habit and something your children get used to. As our children get older, we are a little more flexible. For example, A. is part of Police Explorers which she loves, but since we eat late, she needs to leave before we are sitting down. We have decided that since it is every other week, that it is valuable enough to her that we don't insist on having dinner with us. (And, if we ate at a more normal time, she wouldn't miss dinner at all, but our family schedule doesn't work that way at the moment.) If a child was missing more than a couple of meals a week, we would be having a conversation. (They love that.)
Time is running short and this end, and words are running long here, so I'll stop here. If you want to read more, you can look at these past posts:
Rules for Large Family Meals
Family Dinner Tips
I'll Say it Again
One last comment about these older posts. As I read through them, they can sound a little strict in our rule setting. While the family rules we have laid out are usually enforced, it is also the case that in reality they are pretty flexible. Is a child having a particularly hard day? There's some grace allowed there. Is a child still learning to function in a family setting or learning to feel safe? Things can look a little different. Relationship and felt safety always trump external rules and J. and I have been known to break a few of these ourselves.