Families are busier than ever. Parents work more than one job, kids are involved in extra-curricular activities, and more often than not, dinner is something that is grabbed through a take-out window and eaten in a car, in front of a television or sitting at a computer.
Is children’s health suffering because they’re not sitting around the dinner table, eating a homemade meal and talking about their day? Do kids whose families eat meals together regularly eat healthier, do better in school, and generally make better choices?
Research seems to suggest that the answer is YES!
The family table leads to healthier eating habits.
Studies have shown that children who regularly sit down to eat meals with their family, eat more fruits and vegetables, drink less soda, and have a higher intake of dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals, than those who don’t sit down to regular meals with their families. In addition, these healthier eating habits are likely to carry over into their adult life.
According to Tanya Lott, a wife and mother from Indiana, her brood was sitting down at the table less and less during the six months when her husband was working a second full-time job. Her children would watch TV or play video games while eating.
Tanya got into the habit of serving meals that were less than nutritionally balanced and she would often not even eat dinner herself. She reported that her family was more than happy to return to eating healthier meals at the dinner table once her husband was able to be home in the evenings again.
Another important benefit to the family meal according to a Harvard study is the decrease in cases of extreme eating disorders such as purging, binging and excessive dieting among adolescents.
Good family communication = less likelihood of substance abuse.
Natascha Santos, PsyD, a certified bilingual school psychologist and behavior therapist at Bio Behavioral Institute in Great Neck, N.Y., points to improved communication as the top benefit of family mealtime. “The more often families have dinner together, the stronger their bond,” Santos says. “There is a protective factor against risky behavior because they are more connected to their family unit.”
Plus, the face time of eating together adds a sense of accountability that further influences a child’s decision making process. Many families have hectic schedules that pull them in multiple directions. And it can be easy to miss something important when conversation is limited. But establishing a routine of family dinners gives children more opportunities to talk with their parents on a regular basis.
Obviously family dinners are not some sort of magic, and there are other factors that will influence an adolescent or teenagers choices. Children who grow up in at-risk populations, in poverty, or with parents who are substance abusers themselves will have additional challenges.
But even so, according to Santos , the more time spent sitting down and talking and listening to one another, the greater the opportunities for kids to talk about things that are bothering them. Children and teens that feel a strong sense of connection to their families have a sense of belonging and are less likely to try cigarettes, drugs or alcohol.
Academic performance improves.
The Importance of Family Dinners IV, a report published by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, found that teens that frequently eat with their families have increased vocabulary, which helps them be better readers.
The Columbia University study determined that there’s a direct link between grades and eating together as a family. Compared with teens who ate dinner with their families five or more times a week, twice as many teens that had family dinner twice a week did poorly in school.
How to do it:
Ok, you know you should start sitting down as a family but exactly how are you going to make that work? You have different schedules, nobody is home to prepare dinner, and kids are going to complain about not using their electronic devices, and on and on. It is going to take some effort to make these changes and it won’t happen overnight. Here are some suggestions from Stacey Antine, MS, RD, author of Appetite for Life, The Thumbs-Up, No-Yucks Guide to Getting Your Kid to Be a Great Eater and founder of HealthBarn USA.
#1. Who says the family meal has to be dinner? Gather the family around the table for breakfast 2-3 times a week.
#2. Create a meal plan for the week that is agreed upon by the family. Shop at the beginning of the week so everything you will need is already in the house.
#3. Break up the tasks and assign a family member to preparing the meal one day a week. Get younger kids involved in meal planning and choosing new recipes.
#4. As a family decide on the new mealtime rules. No phones, TV, complaining etc. Fewer distractions means more meaningful talking and listening!