Much has been written about the importance of the family meal. There’s something about setting aside time every day, away from the distractions of work to-dos and house chores and Instagram notifications, to connect over food with your clan. Kids who grow up with the ritual will be fundamentally different from those who don’t — science backs this up.
And yet the perpetual challenge is finding the time, especially when you have parents who work late or multiple kids with conflicting schedules. Real life often looks less like Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving painting and more like a highway rest stop with bodies stomping in and out at all hours.
When we think of family meals, we usually think of dinner. But sitting down for a whole hour during that busy evening stretch doesn’t makes sense for everyone. If it’s not working in your house and that’s stressing you out, know that there are plenty of good alternatives.
Dr. Anne K. Fishel, a Harvard professor of psychology and the co-founder of The Family Dinner Project, writes that families who eat dinner together five nights a week “reap great benefits” but “there is no magic number, nor is dinner inherently preferable to other meals”.
One option that I like is the late-night family snack. (The NYT calls it table time.) I’m not talking late-late, like midnight, but, say, 8:40pm. How it works: After everyone gets home from the office or school musical rehearsal or soccer practice, you all get into pyjamas and then sit around the table for hot chocolate or bowls of cereal and milk.
You can catch up at a leisurely pace without having to think about how many pieces of broccoli Zadie is eating or how much maths homework Ryder still has to do or how many pots you need to load into the dishwasher. With everyone pretty much done for the day, you can use the time to unwind and unplug (perhaps by putting your phones in a family docking station).
Who knows? It might just become the tradition you look forward to most.