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by Daniel Waldheim, Regent University Charis Institute

Low on Time

A precondition to being concerned about a positive mealtime experience is making sure mealtime occurs in the first place. It is often difficult to have consistent family meals. Family meals require intent to materialize because they take preparation and commitment, which requires time and energy. Time can be hard to come by because people are busy, so much so that professionals have coined the term time famine (Perlow, 1999) to describe a state where time is scarce. Difficulty in trying to find time for something, especially consistently, is an experience that almost anyone can relate to.

These constraints explain why a 2011/2012 National Survey of Children’s Health found only 37% of adolescents from ages 12-17 report six to seven meals each week (as cited in Goldfarb, 2014, p. 1). If you recall from the first blog in this series, Story et al. (2002) revealed that for 80% of American teens, family dinner at home made the list of top activities (as cited in Fishel, 2016, p. 519). There is a clear discrepancy between actual frequency and desired frequency of family meals, especially in the adolescent population. It’s a discrepancy that needs to be resolved.

Behavioral Intentionality

In the hustle and bustle of life, we must slow down to care for others. The intriguing Good Samaritan study by Darley and Batson (1973) displays how paramount it is to slow down in order to show compassion towards another person. In this study, seminary students on their way to lecture about the Good Samaritan Parable (cf. Luke 10:29-37) were placed in different conditions that manipulated the amount of time the seminary student had to get to the location they would be lecturing at.

En route, they passed a bystander in obvious need of help. The empirical data indicated the most predictive factor of whether the seminary student helped the bystander was the seminarian’s level of unhurriedness. That is, the less hurried the seminarian, the more likely they were to help the bystander, despite the fact that the seminarians were literally going to speak on the Good Samaritan parable in which the Samaritan, unlike the priest or Levite (i.e., religious leaders), stops and shows mercy to the incapacitated Jewish man.

Applying this finding to family meals, it is imperative that the family meals have behavioral intentionality- they should be consciously planned time and space set aside for fostering a positive atmosphere, lest the risk of displaying lower levels of compassion, care, and empathy towards family members are increased when the time is rushed. To practically flesh out how to set aside time for family meals, (this doesn’t just serendipitously happen on a consistent basis) we look to Ryan’s (1970) goal setting theory.


Ryan’s (1970) goal setting theory is the intuitive idea that “conscious goals affect action,” (as cited in Locke and Latham, 2002, p. 705). An apt derivation of goal setting theory is the SMART acronym. MacLeod (2012) details the components of a SMART goal:

Specific- Specificity “brings a much needed practical reality to distinguishing effort from results” and “leaves no doubt exactly what needs to be accomplished” (p. 70). Example questions include: When will we eat together (i.e., Night or Morning?) Which nights/mornings of the week? At what time? What food will we be eating? Who will shop to get the food? Will my proposed meal schedule work with my family’s preexisting time demands and needs? (e.g., Billy has soccer practice from 7:30-9:00 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). Who is cooking? Who is cleaning the dishes? Or, are we going out to eat for one of our meals?

Measurable- “Objectives should be quantified so the degree of accomplishment can accurately be measured;” this breeds accountability as “It is much more difficult to avoid accountability when measurement criteria are clear and not subject to interpretation” (p. 70). Example: Our goal is to have dinner four nights a week: Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, one breakfast Saturday morning, and one lunch Sunday.

Achievable- Achievability is key because “If the established objectives are not reasonably achievable with respect to available time, talent and resources, frustration is sure to follow” (p. 70). Example consideration: If you currently do not have meals together consistently, perhaps it is best to shoot for three or four meals a week, rather than five (which is the ideal number you will discover as you keep reading). Build to five or more meals, but don’t be unrealistic when trying to implement a new practice. Be consistent and make mealtime a habit, a family ritual, and rhythm of life. Having some meals together is better than none.

Relevant- MacLeod asserts “The most straightforward way to ensure that objectives are relevant is through prior validation of the relationship between expected outcomes with the intended goals and then to list each objective in writing in their order of priority” (p. 70). The guiding question: How important is it for your family to make mealtime a consistent priority? What types of interactions should be present at the table so that the focus, increasing the family bond of solidarity, is nurtured?

Time Bound- This means that “the objectives are to be accomplished by an agreed-upon point in time” because “Without a predetermined deadline, there is only a general notion about due dates, which in turns generates a less than rigorous pursuit of closure. Where there is only a loose expectation of closure, prioritizations and associated time management requirements are more apt to lack needed discipline” (p. 70). Guiding question: If I want to create a consistent schedule for family mealtime, when will this new schedule be implemented?

SMART Example

Example SMART Goal for mealtime: Our family agrees making family meals a consistent priority in our lives is worthwhile (i.e., Relevant). Starting next Monday (Time Bound), we will have two dinners and one lunch together as a family (Measurable). We will start with having three consistent meals a week (Achievable) because we do not have a consistent mealtime schedule as of now. The meals will be 6:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and the lunch will be at 1:00 p.m. on Sundays after church (Specific). Bill (i.e., husband) will cook x Tuesday, Sue (i.e., wife) will cook y Thursday, and we will eat out at a restaurant together on Sunday after church* (Specific). In sum, leave as little ambiguity as possible, make the goal realistic, albeit difficult, (Locke and Latham, 2002, p. 706) and make sure it is important to you and your family.

*To be sure, eating at home is much healthier than restaurants as it typically has less calories. This is why “it is not surprising that children who regularly eat family dinners are less likely to be obese” (Fishel, 2016, p. 516). However, there is no reason to think eating out shouldn’t count as a meal with family. The consistent time for connection is the most important ingredient in gaining the effects of mealtime, not whether the meal was eaten at the house or at a restaurant.


Using behavioral intentionality via setting a SMART goal for family meals is a simple, tangible first step to making sure family mealtime occurs. The next blog post will key in on making sure the mealtime experience is a positive one.


Darley, J. M., & Batson, C. D. (1973). ” From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 27(1), 100.

Fishel, A. K. (2016). Harnessing the power of family dinners to create change in family therapy. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 37(4), 514-527.

Goldfarb, S. S. (2014). Three studies on family meals: Examining the predictors of family meals and its impact on adolescent health. The University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Kahneman, D. (1973). Attention and effort (Vol. 1063, pp. 218-226). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Les MacLeod EdD, M. P. H. (2012). Making SMART goals smarter. Physician executive, 38(2), 68.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American psychologist, 57(9), 705.

Perlow, L. A. (1999). The time famine: Toward a sociology of work time. Administrative science quarterly, 44(1), 57-81.