This is my fourth annual blog about the concept of family dinner that has run on Mom’s Day. Others include:

When I first started writing these blogs, all three of our boys lived at home and ranged in age from early elementary school to middle school to high school.

As I write now, the age span has crept up to middle school to high school to college. In other words, one has moved out and another is about to do so.

Now more than ever, I see with the lens of “They’re going to be on their own really soon, so they might as well learn those independent skills now rather than later.” Yes, time to develop agency in all aspects of life.

I contrast that with how I felt a few years ago when I thought I was doing the boys a favor to prep all of their meals because “they were so busy,” I see more clearly now that the biggest favor I can do is teach them how to prepare it themselves. I know, I’m stating the obvious. We’ve heard the sayings before, “teach them to fish,”  “you’re teaching your kids learned helplessness if you’re doing something for them that they can do for themselves,” or “don’t over-parent” and so on.

I have a hunch I am not the only parent who gets caught in the trap of thinking it’s faster, more efficient, easier and maybe even more “loving” to do things for them.  Often it is!

However, there is strong research that goes beyond my intuition and that serves as a reminder that doing chores is a big part of developing agency and a “pitch-in” mentality!

Translated to the dinner theme? Let the kids cook!

Benefits of Kids Doing things for Themselves (and Others)

While there are benefits inherent in family dinner itself (see final section), the benefits extend even further when kids are part of the preparation process.

In her 2014 TED talk, Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult, and the former dean of freshman at Stanford University, boiled down the keys to raising awesome adults to two key things:

  • Love
  • Chores (of which preparing dinner can be a part!)

While that may seem like an oversimplification, this advice is based on the Harvard Grant Study, the longest-running longitudinal study in history, (spanning 75 years and counting–from 1938 to the present), in which researchers identified these two things as integral to childhood for those who grow up to be happy and successful.

For an awesome recap of Julie’s speech, along with other tidbits I recommend the  TED Radio Hour podcast Turning Kids Into Grown-Ups.

Further, there aren’t many parents who’d argue with a pitch-in mindset. While not surprising, mothers’ attitudes toward and beliefs about meals and chores matter. According to a group of Texas A&M researchers who published the report Mothers and Meals, when Mom believes dinner is important, so do kids.

Tips for Having Kids Make the Meal: By the Ages

Let me preface this section by saying I am not an expert at having kids make the meal. I always marveled at those parents who had an amazing menu plan and activated a rotation where everyone takes responsibility to cook one meal, rotate chores, and so on.

We just haven’t been that family and our schedules have never felt that predictable. So, we’ve done more “opportunistic” cooking.

Today, we have one son who recently made the transition from high school to college, another from middle school to high school, and another who will be moving from elementary to middle school this fall. So, this “tips” section is more of a narrative around what’s worked for them recently.

High School > College.  Last year, as our senior in high school (Grant) received his “manual” for workouts and nutrition in preparation for becoming part of a college student-athlete, he declared that he wanted to shop for and cook his own food. It was THE best! While my husband (Mac) and I ended up doing much of the shopping, every Sunday, Grant not only cooked for himself, he cooked for the family! After Mac taught him the art of grilling, Grant would cook up enough lean meat to feed us for several meals – his repertoire included salmon, chicken, pork and the occasional steak. Now he grills for his buddies at college.

Middle School > High School. Our son, Adam, is quite creative and loves his ‘snacks,’ so his early high school years focused more on things like smoothies, vegetable dips, eggs and snack mixes. One challenge at this age is to find enough “healthy” snack options. One thing we’ve tried to do since the kids were little is have them help plant a vegetable garden and enjoy munching on peas.  I’ll call it a “win” here to have him help with parts of the meal rather than the whole meal. He’s also learned he can contribute the atmosphere. Cooking may not have been his favorite in early high school years, but he has provided family entertainment by playing his guitar and singing. Here’s a ‘throwback picture’ of Adam living out a family tradition.

Elementary > Middle School. Our elementary-going-on-middle school son loves to prep breakfast. Weekend mornings (when he’s not running off to a sporting event), he loves to make a big breakfast. Recently, his menu included scrambled eggs, bacon, waffles and blueberries. It took a while (and it’s important to eat a quick snack before undertaking the prep!) and he had lots of good coaching from Mac, but he was super proud when we all sat down to eat his meal.

Pre School > Elementary. While none of our kids are currently this age, we have some great memories of preparing meals together. One year, we received this book as a gift and it’s awesome for 3 main reasons: 1. There are huge photos so kids can page through and get excited. 2. There aren’t too many ingredients in each recipe. 3. The recipes are written in kid-friendly language.

How Family Dinner Benefits Learning

Everyone benefits — especially the kids. Research has found that family dinner drives student achievement (and decision making):

  • Improved vocabularies and reading skills. Catherine Snow of Harvard Graduate School of Education looked at how mealtime conversations play a critical role in language acquisition in young children. The discourse at dinner provides even more vocabulary context than when reading them. Improved vocabulary skills lead to better readers.
  • Greater academic achievement. A Reader’s Digest survey of more than 2,000 high-school seniors compared academic achievement with family characteristics. Eating meals with their family was a stronger predictor of academic success than whether they lived with one or both parents.
  • Higher grades. A series of reports on family dinner by CASA Columbia have found striking relationships between frequency of family meals and grades. According to one of CASA’s reports, teens who have daily dinners with their family are almost 40% more likely to report receiving “mostly As and Bs” in school compared to teens who have dinner with their family two or fewer times per week.
  • Unlikely (or at least less likely) to smoke, drink or take drugs. In addition to the benefits mentioned in the relationship section regarding CASA’s findings of reduced use of marijuana and tobacco, teens who eat frequent family dinners are also less likely than other teens to have sex at young ages and get into fights; they are at lower risk for thoughts of suicide; and are more likely to do better in school. This is true regardless of a teen’s gender, family structure or family socioeconomic level.

The benefits of family dinner both to developing agency and to promoting learning are evident.

So, kids, what are you cooking for Mother’s Day?

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