“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.
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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.