For 40 years, Lynn and Pat Panter have been hosting family dinner on Sundays after church.
"It's funny, this is just something we have always done," says Lynn Panter. "When our children were little, we had Sunday dinner after church. As they got older, we kept on doing it. Here we are 40 years later with grown children, spouses, boyfriends and grandchildren seated around the table."
While some people may have experienced family dinners where their presence was expected, if not mandatory, that's not how it works at the Panters.
"There is no pressure to come," says Lynn. "If they have something else to do, they know they are free to go do it with no repercussions for not being present. We usually have between eight and 16 people seated around the table on any given Sunday."
Between the laughter, the stories and discussions about the sermon they heard at their respective churches that morning, it is always a lively experience and a great way for the family to stay connected.
"Even though my husband was on the road a lot when our daughters were young, the expectation was that we all ate dinner together," Lynn says. "This was our time to catch up with each other and the events of the day. It kept us connected even when schedules were hectic."
Research has shown that regular and meaningful family meals offer a variety of benefits both to children and adults. Studies suggest that having dinner together as a family at least four times a week has positive effects on child development and has been linked to a lower risk of obesity, substance abuse, eating disorders and an increased chance of graduating from high school.
Additionally, meals have been linked to providing a sense of family unity and identity as well as teaching traditions. Discussions around the dinner table not only give children an opportunity to express themselves, they also teach them to wait their turn to speak, hear many different perspectives and, in some instances, learn how to agree to disagree.
Family meals give parents the opportunity to transmit their values from one generation to the next, as well as teach good table manners and etiquette. These times together as a family create a bond and shared memories that children carry with them long into adulthood.
The key to the success of these gatherings is to make them technology free zones -- no televisions, tables, or cellphone allowed.
"Some people probably wonder why we still have the Sunday dinners." says Lynn. "I think the biggest reason we still do it is because we really enjoy being together. We look forward to catching up with each other. It's not formal and everybody pitches in -- which is a good thing. In order to do something like this, you need to enjoy doing it, otherwise, it becomes a burden."
The launch of a new year is a great time to try something different. If family meals has been on your "to do" list, this is the time to make it happen. Set a date, keep it simple and watch what happens. Family members, i.e., children, may balk at first, but once they get in the routine, they will look forward to time together. Who knows what may be happening at your house 40 years from now?
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of First Things First. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.