With the chaos typical during a divorce, it can be easy to let certain traditions fall through the cracks. One common tradition that often falls by the wayside is the family dinner.
Having to fit extra responsibilities into your schedule brought about by your divorce — financial, household, and possibly having to move to a new home — you might think you don’t have time for family dinners or they’re not important anymore. Telling the kids to grab something from the fridge or serving a quickie dinner in front of the TV can feel like an easy way to check the box.
Maybe your omission of family dinners is deliberate; the emotions they bring up for you and your children can be complicated. Family dinners may no longer feel right because one family member is missing from the table. Having to remove a place setting or stare at an empty seat during dinner can become a tremendous source of sadness. So you think, why not just skip it?
Or perhaps family dinners were never part of your family’s routine, and you’re thinking about trying to incorporate them into your schedule. Still, you aren’t sure if they’re worth the effort.
Your concerns are all understandable. However, family dinners after divorce can be an important part of the recovery process for everyone, including your ex. Here are a few reasons why.
Family dinners help children’s physical, emotional, and social development.
According to Tonyah Dee, a registered dietician, nutritionist, and life coach from Southern California, “Establishing a routine of eating together once a day produces a plethora of health benefits, not just physical but psychological and spiritual as well.”
Family dinners can be an opportunity to teach kids about healthy eating habits, lowering the likelihood they lead a high-risk lifestyle as adults. Research from the Family & Children’s Center suggests family dinners provide opportunities to introduce kids to a wider variety of nutritious foods, potentially lowering the risk of childhood obesity.
According to a 2017 study conducted at the University of Montreal, children who participated in family meals from an early age were healthier in childhood through adolescence.
The study, which examined children beginning at five months of age, found that a higher environmental quality for the family meal at age six correlated to children consuming fewer soft drinks, becoming more physically fit, and having more social skills by age 10. Also, the children were less likely to be physically aggressive, oppositional, or delinquent.
However, Dee cautions parents to “be careful not to place too much emphasis on the food and forcing kids to eat vegetables.”
Instead, she says, parents should “focus on setting an example of how eating together can be an opportunity to celebrate each other.”
The Family & Children’s Center further states that sitting down as a family for dinner provides an opportunity to strengthen familial bonds. Fostering stronger relationships and a sense of belonging builds self-esteem and confidence for family members, including children. Emotionally stable children, in turn, say the Partnership to End Addiction, are less likely to turn to drugs and alcohol.
Finally, family dinners are also an occasion when parents can teach children table manners and socialization skills. These are skills that will help children into adulthood and throughout their lives.
Family dinners allow you to check in with your kids about how they’re coping with your divorce.
Taking the time each night to sit down and see how your kids are doing emotionally, socially, and academically can tell you a lot about how they’re coping with your divorce. Did they have a good day? What have they been up to? Are they getting along with their peers?
Children need undivided attention from their parents. Allotting time each night, or even a few times every week, to sit down and hear about your children’s life can strengthen your bond. Family dinner gives children the floor to air any grievances they might have about your divorce or any other issue they might be facing.
Dee says, “What’s also important, especially after divorce, is taking the time to have an open conversation, a shared experience, and perhaps a moment to express thankfulness.”
The relaxed atmosphere of sharing a meal can provide children with a safe space to talk about their emotions or anything else that might be bothering them. Even if your children aren’t in the mood to talk, knowing you’re there with them for a set time each day can create stability where it might be lacking since your divorce.
“It’s easy to see how making sure a dinner is nutritious can benefit children,” says Dee.
However, Dee cautions, “Connection is just as important as food for our overall health and wellbeing. A tradition of eating and talking can be one which lasts well into the future after the children have grown.”
Family dinners can also serve as a form of self-care for you. If you’ve been busy and stressed out, taking time out to sit down, eat a nutritious meal, and chat with your children can improve your physical and mental health, allowing you to be more productive while feeling good.
Family dinners help redefine what it means to be a family.
By continuing the practice of family dinners without your ex or beginning the tradition, you send the message to your children that you’re still a complete family. The only difference is your family has taken on a new shape, and families come in all shapes and sizes. That includes yours.
Dee says, “Your children will look forward to eating and talking with you for years to come, and that’s ultimately what we all need after a divorce, the reassurance our family members will be able to continue to connect and thrive.”
Once the tension from your divorce subsides, and if you enjoy a healthy co-parenting relationship with your ex, you can consider the possibility of even inviting your ex to your family dinners regularly or from time to time.
The best part about family dinners is that, as the head of your family, you have the freedom to define what they mean and why.