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Family Dinners: What’s their place in college and life?

Dining Hall Line, Nazareth College

Dining Hall Line, Nazareth College

Do a quick web search on family dinners and you will be inundated with a plethora of recipes to try, many of which may be new to you and offer some needed changes to your routine.  Recipes are not the only thing that appears in the search.  You will also be shown links to numerous studies that have been conducted on the benefits of eating meals together as a family.  It is amazing to think about how such a simple activity can have such lasting benefits.  For example, family dinners are more likely to result in the following:

  • children who are healthier overall;
  • children who are less likely to use alcohol, cigarettes, illegal drugs, prescription drugs;
  • children who perform better academically.

This list, found on WebMD, goes on to share more of the benefits of the family dinner.  It is amazing to think that with all of these positive effects, many of us have somehow not been able to hold on to the family dinner as a tradition.

When I think about our students today, they are very busy juggling multiple majors, multiple jobs, and multiple student organizations.  This does not even include time for social activities, exercise, or sleep!  Yet, I find myself drawn to the importance of the family dinner as a foundation from which students can succeed and excel.  How many of our students sit down together to eat versus how many get something “to-go?”  Of these students getting something to-go, how many eat alone or on a bus between classes?  Anecdotally, too many, I would say.

Are we to blame?  I can imagine that this may have caught some off-guard?  Think about it, however.  How many times do we plan events, programs, activities around the dinner hour because we know we can attract people?  And, if we plan an event, are we designing it so that students can attend with their “family” at college and simply interact with those closest to them? I would argue that their friends are their new family at college.  Or, are we providing structured activities where they interact in a way we want them to interact?  Or, perhaps worse still, sitting there idle while listening to a guest presenter?  I don’t mean to suggest that these types of activities are not valuable; on the contrary, they are extremely valuable.  However, knowing what we know about family dinners, is providing such activities during dinner time in the best interest of our students?

If events occur on-campus during dinner, are we doing a disservice to our own families by not giving them they attention they need and deserve?  How many in student affairs work late or go home after the rest of their family has eaten dinner?  Are we hurting ourselves in this process?  Are we role-modeling appropriately to our students and our families?  I realize that it is not always possible to eat together as a family.  Deadlines and projects do occur.  My question, rather, is whether eating together is a priority and whether we behave in a way that supports that priority?

I had my taxes done this weekend and the person who does them is an attorney.  Obviously, by his occupation, he works long hours.  During our time together, we somehow got on the topic of family meals and he mentioned that it is important to him and his family as well.  Somehow, with their busy schedules and his workload, they manage to eat together most nights of the week.  It is possible if it is a priority.

My family eats dinner together over 95% of the time.  It would be easy for me to stay at work longer or for my wife to do the same.  But, eating together is about the family.  It is about showing what is important life.  It is about role modeling.  Sometimes, when my wife and girls are sitting at the table for dinner, my wife will say to the girls, “Okay, let’s say grace.”  She knows I am almost seated.  Yet, one of my daughters always says, “No.  Wait for Daddy.”  My children realize the importance of family dinners in their lives.  I know that once sports and clubs start up for them, it may not be possible to eat together every night.  However, that does not mean we won’t try.

What do you think?  Are we in student affairs and higher education structuring students lives in a way that defeats the benefits if a family dinner for both ourselves and our students (knowing that our students’ families are their close college friends)?  Do you feel like you are spending your time in the areas you value and feel are most important?  If you are not in student affairs, what are your thoughts?  Are family dinners important to you?  Why or why not?

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