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A simple long-lasting recipe for success
Barbara Curtis

Want to maximize your children’s chance for success? Boost their grades and SAT scores, develop good self-esteem and social skills — plus help them avoid cigarettes, drugs and alcohol?

Just 30 minutes a day is all it takes. You never have to leave home or spend a dime. Yet study after study concludes that one simple practice can make these parental dreams come true.

All you have to do is sit down to a family dinner.

These days, that may be easier said than done — probably why we’ve seen a 33 percent decrease in the last 30 years in families who say they have dinner together regularly. Think about it: In 1970, after school kids played pretty much on their own — roller skating, impromptu backyard baseball games, Barbie soap operas or just plain hanging out while mom made dinner. Dad came home, Mom called the kids and voila: the family dinner.

Today’s families are different, many with two breadwinners or single parents. But even in a traditional family like mine, dealing with a heap of homework and a gazillion extracurricular activities adds a crazy spin to the concept of dinner.

Not to mention countless hours of parental behind-the-wheel. So who has time to cook?

Still, those studies are hard to ignore. Family dinners mean kids with better eating habits and good manners and social graces, kids who know how to make dinner conversation and who will be welcome and confident wherever they go. And, on a more serious note, a decreased chance of teen pregnancy or suicide.

And by the way, as a former single mother, I know it’s not easy to sit down and eat together, but since kids from single-parent families are most at risk, they need family dinners more than anyone.

So how does a busy family do it? Here are a few suggestions:

Keep dinnertime flexible. On nights Zach had karate, we had dinner at 5 p.m. On nights when Ben had after-school rehearsal, we had it at 7 p.m. I look for a window of opportunity, and if we can’t all be home, then at least when most will be. But make sure when dinner’s late the kids have snacks to keep crankiness at bay.

Use a crock pot. First thing in the morning, throw in some meat, mushroom soup and Lipton’s onion soup mix, or try spaghetti sauce with defrosted frozen meatballs.

Stretch these moments of togetherness by involving your children in meal prep. Instead of finding peace by scooting the kids out of the kitchen, make them welcome and necessary. Even the smallest can stand on a stool and watch the action.

Turn off the TV. Don’t answer the phone.

Keep things simple. Once a week we do “breakfast night” — pancakes, sausage, eggs.

Have some conversation starters — e.g., a Bible verse, song lyrics a bit of American history — and encourage everyone to participate. In the words of Ronald Reagan, “All great change in America begins at the dinner table.”

Instead of a rotating chore, make clean-up fun by working together — “Many hands make light work” — maybe singing songs like “A Spoonful of Sugar” or “Just Whistle While You Work.” If you’re having a good time, your kids will too.

No matter how simple the meal, a few candles will lift it to another level. And don’t forget to say grace — with feeling. As the Bible says, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”

One more thing: Making dinnertime a priority, and putting your own special motherhood energy into each meal, offers rewards when your children are grown and gone. Filled with warm memories of the special moments around the family table, they rarely will turn down an invitation for a family dinner. That’s the kind of bond that can only be established when they are growing up.

Sit down, relax and get to know each other better. The bottom line is this: Kids don’t care if it’s fish sticks and French fries, as long as time with you is on the menu. That’s what they’ll always remember.

Curtis, who blogs at mommylife.net, is a mother of 12 and author from Lovettsville.

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