Question of the week: Why are family meals so important for the single parent?



Quite a bit of research shows that family meals are important in keeping kids connected to the family unit. Some research even says kids get better grades and are less depressed when families eat together. Unfortunately, with the hectic, busy lifestyles single parents lead, family meals are often the last thing they think about.

On the way home after work and picking up the kids from childcare, many single parents swing by a fast food place. Everyone orders what they want, and the kids either eat in the car on the way home, or as soon as everyone arrives home, they scatter. The single parent goes straight to the washing machine and starts on the backed-up laundry. The kids park themselves in front of the TV or get involved in their electronic games.

On many evenings, the single parent eats a cold meal alone after getting everyone settled and accomplishing various household chores. Sometimes, it might even be after the kids are in bed, and the single parent has had a chance to relax for the first time since early that morning.

Dinner or breakfast?

While most people think the family meal is in the evening, in the single-parent family, the family meal just might be breakfast. This could be because the child goes to the other home after school. Many single parents work two jobs, or the kids’ after-school activities interfere, so this might be the only time all the family members are together all day long.

As a kid in a divorced home, what better way to start out the day than to feel connected to your parent and other family members at the beginning of each day?

Here are some tips to pass on to single parents to help everyone understand the purpose of family meals, along with tips for successful family meals. (These also work in two-parent homes.)

Purpose of family mealtime

  • Connect with each other on a regular basis
  • Scheduled family mealtimes allow children to depend on something happening on a regular basis. This is important to children who have faced the trauma of divorcing parents.
  • Gives meaning and value to belonging to a family unit
  • Helps family members feel closer to each other
  • Meals together can validate one’s place in the family unit.
  • It can be a time of sharing day-to-day happenings with each other. This is great in the morning and gives many kids a better feeling about the upcoming daily activities.
  • Serves as a time to commit to praying for each other’s problems and burdens
  • Mealtimes can be a time of developing and building rituals, such as pizza Friday or holiday meals that extend family traditions.
  • Meals together can be a time when single parents share part of their childhood and their family heritage and childhood traditions.

Tips for success

Make the children part of the process.

  • Start with meal planning. Ask the children what they want to eat.
  • Have the kids help make up a weekly menu.
  • Assign one child to check on the ingredients needed, while another child makes a list of the things that need to be purchased for each meal.
  • Take the children grocery shopping with you. In my single-parent home, when the kids were younger, we sat down once a week and clipped and organized coupons we wanted to use at the store. Each child scouted out the items in their stack of coupons.
  • Keep meals simple, so a lot of time is not spent in preparation,
  • When the kids help prepare the meal, make it a fun time by joking, singing songs, and sharing funny stories from your childhood.
  • Assign each child a responsibility at each meal. For teens, assign each child a day when he or she is responsible for preparing the entire meal.
  • Have younger children who can’t cook help set the table.
  • Either everyone cleans up after the meal, or someone is assigned to clean up. When my kids were teens they took turns being responsible for washing dishes and cleaning the kitchen every other week.
  • Every so often, have a formal meal. Make it a time for everyone to dress up and use their best manners while you use the best table setting, including the expensive dishes, tablecloth, and napkins. Perhaps even put a flower in a vase in the middle of the table.
  • Always take time to bless the food in prayer before eating.

Keep in mind that engagement is the key to developing and maintaining family mealtimes.

Some guidelines for sharing meals together

  • Every member has an opportunity to talk.
  • Everyone should listen to each family member.
  • Instead of asking, “How was your day?”, ask, “What are two good things that happened to you today?”

I learned this years ago from a very wise single mom. One of her sons had great difficulty with his anger. It seemed like he was in trouble almost every day at school. This mom decided she had had enough of the negative talk, so she implemented a new rule. Every night, all the family members, including the mom, had to share two good things that happened to them. One night, they invited me to eat dinner with them, and I was also expected to share two positive things.

  • Demonstrate empathy for each other. This can be accomplished by the single parent role modeling empathy to the kids.
  • Every so often, perhaps once a week, each person tells something positive or something kind about another family member.
  • Children listen to the parent’s issues as the parent tells interesting stories about the day.

Some don’ts

  • One thing to keep in mind is to not use this as a time to berate the kids about grades. That conversation needs to come at a different time.
  • Don’t use this time to inquire about what goes on in the other home.
  • Don’t use this time to make your children your confidantes. Find a friend or two for that purpose. Your children need you to be their parent.
  • Don’t use this time to gripe and complain about your ex. Keep in mind that the ex is their other parent.
  • Do NOT look at your cell phone or answer it or any texts during the meal. As a matter of fact, put your cell phone in another room.
  • Do not allow any electronic gadgets or games at the table.

If you know a single parent, why not print this out and hand it to them or share it with them on social media? Tell them whether they have the children full time, shared time, or only weekend time, family meals might be the missing ingredient in creating a viable, healthy single-parent family.


This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on the Kids & Divorce blog on May 26, 2015.

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