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Sunday dinner: The family tradition we need to bring back

Want a way to stay connected to family? It’s time to bring back the tradition of gathering around the dinner table.
Happy multi-generation family toasting drinks at table during garden party
Studies show that there are cognitive, psychological and physical benefits of dining together. Maskot / Getty Images

When I was a kid growing up on Long Island, Sunday dinner was a thing. We never mentioned it, but everyone just knew that the end of the weekend meant we had a long-standing date with my maternal grandparents. It was a time to hang around the house, see your relatives and bring in kosher deli. Back then, the platters of sliced pastrami and whole-sour pickles didn’t hold any special significance to me. But now, as an adult with 100 miles separating me from my nearest family members, I’m realizing the importance of this designated family time.

“The family that eats together thrives together,” says Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, a registered psychologist and parenting expert. “Mealtime has historically been a time of family togetherness. Plus, if you’re getting multiple generations together, then there is tapestry of diversity in terms of ages and interests and that is just so good for kids.”

My childhood was influenced significantly by having my grandparents within a short driving distance and my aunt, uncle and cousin within walking distance. While my seven-year-old twins know and love their family, visits are sometimes few and far between unless it’s someone’s birthday, holiday or other special occasion that necessitates a visit. Around the New Year, I decided that this wasn’t ok. After losing my dad a few years ago, I’ve started to realize that these moments together aren’t guaranteed. I wanted our family to be connected and not just in a catch-up-every-once-in-a-while way. So, without telling anyone, I started a Sunday night dinner tradition.

What’s for dinner doesn’t matter — it’s the communal environment that you create that makes all the difference.

“We’re coming over,” I announced to my mom on the phone one Sunday morning and within hours, my sister, my cousin and I descended on her home bearing salad, wine and all the ingredients to make the Pioneer Woman’s Baked Ziti. (If you haven’t made it, you need to, STAT!) We all have busy schedules — errands to run, work to do, kids to shuttle around — but for a few hours that Sunday evening, we decided to take a break from it all. The best part was that it was for no other reason than it being Sunday. It wasn’t anyone’s birthday or graduation, but there we were, all gathered around the table together.

Anne Fishel, Ph.D., a family therapist and co-founder of The Family Dinner Project, a non-profit initiative that encourages families to connect over mealtime, tells me that there are numerous benefits of families eating together. “The benefits range from the cognitive ones (young kids having bigger vocabularies and older kids doing better in school) to the physical ones (better cardiovascular health, lower obesity rates and eating more vegetables and fruits) to psychological ones (lower rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse and fewer behavioral problems in school).”

Fishel says that what’s for dinner doesn’t matter — it’s the communal environment that you create that makes all the difference.

“These benefits don’t derive from a perfect roast chicken or organic tomatoes but instead from the atmosphere at the table — if there is conflict, stony silence or an intoxicated parent, these benefits do not occur. It’s critical that the atmosphere at the table be warm and inviting, that kids feel that it is safe to talk and know that someone is listening.”

One thing I’ve learned about this family dinner tradition is that it takes a little effort, but it’s not insurmountable. We overcome the driving distance by taking turns who’s house we go to — one Sunday it’s Mediterranean by me, the next a BBQ by my sister. It doesn’t take place every single Sunday, but I can now say that I see my mom several times a month, not once a month, and that’s a huge difference. Studies have shown that older adults thrive and actually live longer when they have consistent social interactions. For my kids, the real-life facetime provides an invaluable connection to the people in the world who care about them the most. And for me, making the opportunity to see family gives me footing, particularly since moving to a town where we didn’t know anyone less than two years ago.

There are at least sixteen opportunities a week to eat together –seven breakfasts, seven dinners and two weekend lunches.

How to institute a Sunday dinner tradition

If the idea of Sunday dinner sounds totally unrealistic to you, I know where you’re coming from. But there are ways to make it workable and the benefits you’ll reap will be worth the effort, I promise!

  • Remember that family can have different meanings. Not everyone has relatives nearby where, but don’t overlook the friends can be your extended family no matter where you are.
  • Sunday dinner doesn’t have to be on Sunday. Pick whatever day or time works for you and your family. “Keep in mind that there are at least sixteen opportunities a week to eat together – seven breakfasts, seven dinners and two weekend lunches,” says Fishel. “An intentional snack in the evening when everyone takes a break from homework or the computer can also be an opportunity to connect over food, fun and conversation.” Maybe your tradition will be Taco Tuesday, or Saturday breakfast after baseball practice at the diner. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re together.
  • Keep things casual. The whole point of Sunday dinner is that you don’t need to be fancy because it’s a regular occurrence, not a special occasion. That doesn’t mean you can’t have special food or drink or try a new recipe if that’s your thing, but the point is that it should be easy and not stressful. (Remember my family’s take-out deli!) “Keep it simple and real,” says Lapointe. “Make it something doable that you can really get into the routine of rather than going way over the top. Get everyone involved in planning and cooking and cleaning so it is a family affair rather than mom and dad doing all the work.”
  • Put the kibosh on electronics. This is time to be with each other, and everyone can manage without their devices for a couple hours one day of the week. One exception to this could be using technology to include family members that are far away. “Consider setting aside some time for family FaceTime connections right before or right after your own weekly family meal so you are breathing family into the experience even if they cannot be in attendance,” says Lapointe.
  • Plan ahead. The benefits of family dinner are numerous, but chances are if you wait for it to happen on its own, you’ll never do it! “Schedule it with your family, the way you do with other important appointments,” says Fishel. “This commitment to dinner, whether it’s one night a week or more, makes it intentional and a shared priority.” Put a note on your calendar to visit mom and dad the first Sunday of every month – then be sure to extend an invitation to your home for the middle of the month. If you’re dining with friends, rotate a different friend’s house each week. Don’t cancel if someone can’t make it – just keep it going until it becomes routine.

More advice for a happy, healthy family

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