Blue Star Families gave me a challenge. My mission, that I chose to accept, was to sit down to family dinner for 7 nights in a row, no exceptions. While this week was an unusual exception to our already busy lives, it was perfect to showcase how a busy military family is able to sit down for dinner every night. Deployments, TDYs, moving, sports, meetings, etc, can all derail the family dinner.
Blue Star Families and the Family Dinner Project are part of a huge movement across the United States to bring back the family dinner. While many consider this a practice of the past, others have made it their quest to show how the family dinner structure can help improve family stability as a whole. Military families face obstacles that could easily break down cohesion, but the current research suggests that the nightly ritual of sitting down to dinner can strengthen family bonds.
According to the Family Dinner Project, family dinners are especially helpful for those with children. With copious amounts of research to support their findings, family dinners result in better academic performance, lower rates of childhood and adolescent obesity, lower rates of depression in children, lower rates of teen pregnancy, greater sense of resilience and higher self-esteem. These are all topics that can be worrisome for parents and if something as simple as sitting down to eat dinner together can improve the lives of children, it should be considered important.
Family dinners are important to my husband and me, but our challenging week proved that even the most simple of habits can be hard to maintain when the going gets tough…
Day 1: Friday
I breathed a sigh of relief as my husband walked through the door 30 minutes before dinner. I’m not sure if I was happier that he was home after being gone for a week or if it was because I was off the hook for bath duty. Either way, it was a good way to start the weekend. We weren’t sure if we were going to be able to start our week of sit down family meals with him. Military families have many nights of dinner with only one parent, it’s a part of the game. We are knee deep in Minecraft birthday party prep (the party is tomorrow), so the kitchen table is currently occupied with glistening melon, gold, and coal, so we retreated outside for dinner together by the grill. Our kids love the change of pace and informality of dinner outside.
Day 2: Saturday
Whew. After a day of soccer parent meetings, swim team tryouts and an afternoon birthday party hosted by yours truly, this mama gets a night off from cooking. As a family, we headed out for dinner. Our special birthday girl got to pick the restaurant. It was a beautiful night in Germany, so outside seating at the restaurant was a plus. It was a great way to wind down, discuss everything that happened today, and re-connect after a stressful week for us all. Tonight we found out that our birthday girl had an amazing time at her party. That makes a busy day worth the effort.
Day 3: Sunday
Dinner on Sunday is later than usual. We have church in the evening and then Sunday school immediately after that, so we usually don’t return home until after 6. On nights like this, having my husband in town makes my life so much easier. As I cooked dinner, the kids were bathed and started to wind down after a busy day of playing with friends. Tonight’s dinner conversation consisted of how hungry they were and their immense love for our dinner tonight. Everybody was in their pjs for dinner and that helped for an easy transition to bedtime.
Day 4: Monday
And let the busy week begin. We are in full moving mode at our house. We are doing a local move from our off base house to a wonderful on-base house on Ramstein. Little did I know that my husband was having an especially busy day as well. Keeping up with the OPSTEMPO (operations tempo) and preparing for a long flight tomorrow, I felt especially guilty asking him to come home for dinner early. Soccer practice starts up tonight and my 7 year old practices at 1800. We just received the keys to our house this afternoon and wanted to go by and see it. We needed to get dinner on the table and out of the house in time to stop by the new house and get to soccer practice on time. It was rough, but we did it. A rewarding night at dinner, as we got to catch up with our 4 year old’s day at pre-k. I also knew this was the last night for a “real” dinner for a few nights. The packers come tomorrow morning.
Day 5: Tuesday
At least one night a week we are without my husband. The needs of the Air Force take priority in our lives and the lives of many other families. We are not the exception, therefore, it is what we are accustomed to. Today was the first day of packing for our local move. I have learned to expect the unexpected and I knew this move would throw in some unexpected turns. The German movers packed us all up in record time, disassembled our furniture and made 1 load on their truck to be delivered tomorrow. The foreman promised 3 truckloads. Each time we move, I say I’d love to scale down our belongings –it’s a work in progress. With the busy day behind us, we had a cold dinner picnic style on the floor for the unceremoniously last dinner we would eat in our German house. The kids loved it. We definitely talk about our feelings more when Dad is not at dinner. My little ones talked about sad they are to leave our neighbors. Sad talk at dinner makes me…well, sad.
Day 6: Wednesday
Yesterday’s truck was delivered, as promised, at 0800. I rushed throughout the day to get as much of the kitchen unpacked as I could, as my husband recovered and went back into work. Our beds were getting delivered today, so I knew we would be eating dinner and sleeping in the new house tonight.
We’ve had some long days, so taking the time to sit down for dinner tonight, amongst all the boxes, was relaxing. The boxes could wait. School starts Monday, so my girls are starting to ask a lot of questions about the first day. My second grader is seeking reassurance that I will walk her to school every day. I have no doubt that she will want to walk with her friends by the second week. My children are already wanting to spend more time with their friends and eat their dinner outside, away from us. I know that it will start to get harder to sit down for dinner, or perhaps with this early habit, they will find comfort in hanging out with mom and dad and sometimes, just one of us.
Day 7: Thursday
The kitchen is put together and I can cook a decent meal for my family. I always start with the kitchen when I unpack, to me, it’s the most important. If we are fed and can sit down as a family, everything seems to slow down and start to feel like home. Tonight I realized that sitting down to dinner is the most relaxing part of my day. It’s the only time when I have just one job and that is to eat (which coincidentally is one of my favorite activities). I am loving the positive comments that my girls have about moving and I am elated at their resiliency each time we throw a little wrench in their lives.
The dinner table. The place where manners and etiquette are taught. The setting in which you can laugh and cry and then laugh again in the same 30 minutes. A place where parents learn patience, set examples, and where they teach their children how to eat healthy and establish good habits. A safe zone where everyone can talk about speak freely about how their day has been and what they will repeat or fix tomorrow.
If you are just finding that family dinners are something you’d like to try, or you are a seasoned pro and need to spark the conversation, try something new:
- High and Low: I learned this method from a good friend who works full time as well as her husband. Each person talks about what their highest point of the day was and what their lowest part of the day was. For little ones, it’s the best and worst parts of their day. It is an amazing way to gain a glimpse into the feelings of a child or adolescent.
- Ask open ended questions: Instead of “how was your day?” which always gives the answer of “fine”, ask about a recap of the day. For example, “Take me through your day – what did you do in reading today?”
- Ask about friends and colleagues. This is not a nosey question, but gives a little insight into personal relationships that are formed. Perhaps there is someone that is being bullied or someone that is being extremely nice at school or work. It’s good to know who your family members are associating with.
Every family has challenges that could derail the family dinner. Deployments, TDYs, high operations tempo, flying schedules, pulling guard, shift work and the numerous other unique and important positions in the military that keep our spouses away for days, weeks, and months at a time. Freedom doesn’t take a break for dinner. We do our best with what is given and we make the most of it. Positivity goes a long way in making dinnertime a peaceful and open experience.
The power of food is a magical thing. Food is used to celebrate life, death, special events, but most importantly, it is used to bring people together. A dinner table is a familiar place, a safe place for most people. If it’s used correctly, it can transform families. Just as a family unit does not have a single definition, there are no two exactly alike, there is no single definition to a dinner table. A dinner table to one family may be the one in their home. To others, it may be a restaurant table, a picnic blanket, a floor, or a campfire. The setting is not always the most important part of family dinner. It is the people who surround you, it is the bond and closeness that you share in keeping communication open, and it is the desire to be together. Enjoy a dinner tonight with your family.
View our Infographic on the benefits of family meals for milkids here: https://www.bluestarfam.org/milkids-benefit-family-meals
This post originally appeared on the Blue Star Families blog.