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Less Table, More Trails: Why Getting Your Family on Trails Might be Healthier than Sitting Around the Dinner Table

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My family spends a lot of time at the kitchen table.  In fact, our family life seems to center around the table.  The homeschooling.  The gagging over having to try one itty bitty bite of lasagne.  The blogging. The computer coding. The countless projects and inventions dreamed up by my four children. The silly and not-so-silly conversations about life.

But as central as the table is in our lives, rarely do we all sit down together to eat a family dinner.

Popular culture, parenting philosophy, self-help books, arm-chair experts, and psychologists, like television’s Dr. Phil, might argue that failing to sit down to share meals doesn’t bode well for our family’s relationship and communication. They may even suggest that it’s setting my kids up for a path of destruction.  After all, American culture has long pushed the idea that eating on the go is detrimental to the family unit. It’s strongly suggested, and research backs the idea, that the actual act of sitting down together around the table strengthens family–and safeguards against teen problems, such as drug and alcohol abuse.

Running is increasingly becoming a family affair. Will the trails replace the family dinner table?

Even as a young kid, I remember hearing popular media harp on how central the kitchen table is for family bonding and keeping kids out of trouble.  In 2016, somehow the message remains the same, as seen in this Parenting article, 5 Ways to Get Your Family Around the Dinner Table Again.  Sitting around the table is supposed to make better families and better kids.

What troubles me is that I’m not sure that we’ve seen real, tangible evidence that the dinner table is actually making families better. After all, divorce rates are at all time highs, drug abuse is a pervasive issue affecting teenagers and young kids, waistlines are growing, obesity is rampant, recess time is shrinking or non-existent, and teens, kids, and grownups are glued to their phones, devices, and televisions instead of having face-to-face conversations together.

Though I appreciate it when my family does come together as a family at the table–and honestly–it really doesn’t happen at home, only when we go out to a restaurant–I’d take trail time to table time any day.

kids trail running trail

Kids Trail Running.

Instead I’d prefer to think of trails–and getting active together as a family–as the modern dinner table.  The Family Dinner Project suggests that American families should spend more time around the table, eating dinner together often.  The idea is that, “Most American families are starved for time to spend together, and dinner may be the only time of the day when we can reconnect, leaving behind our individual pursuits like playing video games, emailing and doing homework. Dinner is a time to relax, recharge, laugh, tell stories and catch up on the day’s ups and downs, while developing a sense of who we are as a family.”

Quality, happy time together as a family is probably a good thing–for kids, parents. and society generally.  So is exercise.  Spending time together where the focus is on fitness, rather than food, is a positive thing too.

If shared time around a meal can statistically reduce substance abuse, teen pregnancy, depression and improve self-esteem and resilience, just imagine what more family time spent outside walking, jogging or running together on trails–or pavement–could do?

Maybe it’s about time that we stopped pressuring families to create the ‘perfect’ family dinner time–and stopped setting families up to believe that the dinner table is somehow a magical elixir to society’s problems.

Maybe it’s time for families to get outside…together.  To connect with each other.  To connect with nature.  To connect with the world around them.

More families are making trail running and outdoor endurance sports a family affair.  That’s what my family is doing. That’s also what one Utah family is doing–three of their six children recently competed at the Xterra USA National Trail Championships. And that’s what Seven Wild and Free’s Sabrina, the amazing trail running mom to six littles, does.  That’s also what runner blogger, VT Runner Mom, does with her two boys and husband; she makes getting out on the trails as a family a priority. And there are many other families doing the same.

Is running a family affair for you?  Are you hoping to make running a family thing?  Are trails your new family table?  Do you think it’s time to ditch the pressure on the family dinner table?


A version of this article originally appeared on Darling Hill in 2014, as Are Trails the New Family Dinner Table?


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