Rough on the edges, the wooden frame worn, with subtle scratches in the whitened glass: After more than ten years, our family's dining table has adapted to perfect imperfection, "holding" many stories, if not family secrets. Of course, in competition with sitting for a shared meal are always the convenient alternatives not necessarily involving this rather monumental fixture of our extended kitchen - a quick bite at the bar, another dinner out (with mostly strangers), or homework while stuffing our faces.
The benefits of shared meals are so astonishing that it may as well take an "investment guy" to make the case. Many areas of our communal life could be improved, if we were only to recognize that relatively small changes to the way we think about our meals, how we consume them, and in what company, will not only have a lasting impact on our overall wellbeing, but also offer more sustainable paths in areas such as education and healthcare. What comes along with this notion is the opportunity to reconsider the "competitive edge" that we, and most children already at a young age, are subjected to.
An eighties proclamation that "dining alone...is no longer viewed to be odd" gave testament to a society in need of greater flexibility, including conforming eating habits to a lifestyle of long working hours and commuting. Today, we have moved to extremes, with 20 percent of Americans eating their meals while driving a car, and an astounding 50+ percent of most meals and snacks consumed in solitude - including 83 percent of the working population having lunch at their desks. As if those numbers are not illustrative enough, mobile technology makes it even easier today to practice "meal solitude," with "party-of-one reservations up 62 percent nationally."
Today's choices are not only counterintuitive to the very foundation of communal life, but also can be counterproductive, as shared family meals are proven to have a lasting positive impact on our overall health. For example, children who enjoy shared meals are less likely to adopt disorderly eating habits, more interested in making healthier food choices, and less prone to obesity later in life. Therefore, without significant effort, yet another monumental issue in the U.S. could be addressed: malnutrition and obesity, which affect more than one third of the population, with an annual cost of $150 billion (in 2008 dollars) to the collective healthcare system.
On the other hand, there is the opportunity to slow down the race against time and one another, simply by eating together. In today's society, working life and family structures have become competitive rather than collaborative. Whereas this societal trend begs a different discussion, we have a choice to make meaningful (albeit small) changes. Shared meals are simply the quintessential "communication booster," and are even more beneficial than reading books out loud at night. Young children eating meals with their parents will pick up a far more complex vocabulary (an additional 1,000 rare words), whereas older children will fare better in high school rankings. Dining together will also help to more effectively form bonds between family members, as well as inform the definition of role models (present and future).
Sure enough, I hear many excuses for why my suggestion is so hard, but it may be more opportune to skip one or the other stressful after-school program, or to reduce your evening storybook collection in favor of a shared meal. Families in their pursuit to lead this important initiative can find excellent support, for example, in The Family Dinner Project - a rich pool of good ideas, including conversation starters. Taking things one step further includes the shared preparation of meals, and even joint trips to the market to buy ingredients. The process is yet another opportunity to be creative and engaged, and to discuss opinions: as you can imagine, making tacos on Tuesdays is a multifaceted challenge, with options ranging from turkey to ground beef, seasoning packets to self-prepared spice mixes, soft tortillas to hard shells, etc.
To close on a personal note, I have not lived anywhere near my parents for more than twenty years, and at times my detailed memories of this particular "togetherness" begins to fade, mainly being updated by new experiences involving my own children. But there is one important thing to be stated: Our family dinner table was the stage where my father explained the risk of a challenged business, where we gathered after my grandmother's passing in recognition of her life, and where I reached the ultimate decision to leave my home country of Germany for New York, including those many farewell drinks and meals with friends and family leading up to my departure. Those are the memories that continue to be emotionally complex, fond, and surely everlasting.
With kind regards,
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