Back in college, I was required to take a few sociology classes as a psych major, so I signed up for one that sounded interesting, 'The Family.' And still to this day, whenever I hear about family issues, I think back to that class. We learned about American families and the changes the 'family' has had over time like divorce, parenting changes, how families went from mostly one-income to two during women's lib, and the one change that stands out to me now, family dinners! The American family is just not eating together as much as they used to.
Our professor's lecture on 'families eating dinner together' was engrained in me as a 19-year old and it has made me strive to follow her advice ever since!
A LOT of families do not eat together anymore with teens racing off to be with friends, dads getting home late from work and families that are just too busy to eat together.
But what exactly does it mean when a family eats dinner together? It sounds like no big deal, but the research I found supports what I learned in school and is super interesting (sources, health.com, PBS, NPR and webmd):
-Families that eat dinner together have been found to lower their child/teens chance of smoking, doing drugs and drinking
-Children are less likely to be depressed, consider suicide, or develop an eating disorder
-Teens are less likely to engage in sex at an early age
-Children will eat more fruits and veggies when they eat with their family
-Children are less likely to be obese, because they are eating home cooked meals with smaller portions and lower in fat
There are a ton more benefits to eating dinner together as a family, but the ones above are the ones that really grabbed my attention.
How does eating together cause your child to have so many positive outcomes? Here is some of the research I found:
Having a set time for dinner when the kids come home shows teens that they can depend on parents. Eating dinner together sends a direct message telling teens that 'my parents love me and care about me.'
The teens who reported having frequent family dinners were also more likely to say they had excellent relationships with their mother, father and siblings.
Eating dinner together as a family helps a child just say NO! Eating family dinners at least five times a week drastically lowers a teen’s chance of smoking, drinking, and using drugs. Teens who have fewer than three family dinners a week are 3.5 times more likely to have abused prescription drugs and to have used illegal drugs other than marijuana, three times more likely to have used marijuana, more than 2.5 times more likely to have smoked cigarettes, and 1.5 times more likely to have tried alcohol, according to a CASA (Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse) report.
When a child is feeling down or depressed, a family dinner can act as an intervention. This is especially true of eating disorders, says Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, who has studied the impact of family meal patterns on adolescents. She also reports that if a child eats with his or her parents on a regular basis, problems will be identified earlier on.
Of teens who eat with their family fewer than three times a week, 20% get C’s or lower on their report cards, according to a CASA report. Family meals give children an opportunity to have conversations with adults, as well as to pick up on how adults are using words with each other, which may explain why family dinner time is also thought to build a child’s vocabulary.
Healthy Eating Benefits:
-9- to 14-year-olds who ate dinner with their families most frequently ate more fruits and vegetables and less soda and fried foods.
-Family dinners are the perfect setting for kids to try new foods and learn from their parents eating them and to expand their tastes.
-Eating out together is better than not eating together, but eating meals at home helps control the portion sizes that restaurants have and lessen obesity in children
-The average restaurant meal has as much as 60% more calories than a homemade meal.
-Americans spend more than 40% of their food budget on meals outside of the home.
-One study found that children who shared mealtimes at least three times per week were 24% more likely to eat healthy foods and have healthy eating habits than those who shared family meals less often.
So, how can you get started if you aren't having them regularly?
A good place to start is reading the amazing cookbook: The Family Dinner
The cookbook has great kid friendly family dinner recipes, conversation starter tips and advice from Maya Angelou to Jamie Oliver. The author has summed up pretty well the benefits of family dinners: Research has proven that everything we worry about as parents—from drugs to alcohol, promiscuity, to obesity, academic achievement and just good old nutrition— can all be improved by the simple act of eating and talking together around the table.
It's also a good idea to start off with small goals, such as trying to plan 2-3 meals together a week, than starting right off with 5. Your family will probably wonder why you went crazy all of a sudden and you'll probably be met with a lot of 'no way!'
Encourage your children to help plan and cook the meal, starting with the menu planning, grocery shopping, cooking and setting the table. Remember too that the more responsibilities you give your kids, the more it helps to increase their self esteem.
Engaging your kids during dinnertime can be a challenge, but remember instead of always asking "how school was?", or "how was your day?", come up with more specific questions (positive and negative) such as "What was the worst thing that happened today?"
So, do any of you have good tips to help get families started or help engage children during dinner?