Over the last two years, I’ve interviewed numerous paediatricians, professors and researchers who examine how digital devices influence children’s physical and mental health, life satisfaction and overall well-being. At the end of our interviews, I always ask something along the lines of, “What’s the best thing parents can do to protect and empower their kids?”
Most recently, it was University of Ottawa professor and researcher Valerie Steeves who said, “If you look at all the research, the single most important thing you can do is a sit-down dinner with your kids every night. And not in the car on the way to hockey. Just sit down, have dinner, have meals. Create those spaces for conversation.”
Last fall, the Vanier Institute of the Family released a Snapshot of Families and Food in Canada. In 2017, 62 per cent of Canadians surveyed said they ate dinner as a family at least five times a week. Twenty-six per cent agreed that their work-life balance did not permit them to prepare and/or eat meals at home.
Nora Spinks, the Vanier Institute’s CEO, says demands on the modern family have put the sit-down family dinner in the pressure cooker.
“Several times a week, people are either skipping meals entirely or they are, in fact, eating meals in transit, so in motion — whether it’s in a car or in public transit, whether they are just walking,” Spinks said.
“When we look at the way in which people relate to food, people are still very interested in the concept of the family meal but often times, families now are eating in shifts so the kids eat at one time or the adults eat at another. Or one kid eats early because they are off to soccer practice or music lessons.”
The benefits of eating together are numerous. The Vanier Institute of the Family points out family meals can contribute to “positive emotional well-being, pro-social behaviour and life satisfaction and literacy development and even reduce the risk of substance use.”
“It allows kids to process their day, to think about what they’ve experienced, to ask questions, to check back to see if their feelings are normal, or if not, then why are they feeling this way? What do they need to know? How do they interpret a situation?” Spinks said. “It also is an opportunity for parents to provide encouragement and reinforce their values and their traditions. It gives a chance for the kids to pause, and just be in the moment.”
For many parents I heard from, family dinners are a priority but work schedules and extracurricular activities encroach on the ritual.
Erin Spooner, a mother of three, writes, “It is super important for us to be unplugged and talk about our days. If we have a commitment like sports, we will have a snack together when we get home. My boys ask both mom and dad how their day was and we ask them what was the best part of their day.”
Andrea Parker says it’s a daily habit for her family.
“I feel it’s so important,” she said. “We found out a lot on my stepson’s life when I made him and his dad sit down at the table.”
Spinks says it doesn’t matter if the meal is home-cooked or out of a box, or if the dinner happens at a food court or around the kitchen island; the value comes from the conversation and connection.
“What it does is it allows everybody to come together — even if it’s only for 10 or 15 minutes — but they come together. They are focused on each other.”