One of the 10 things that happy families do is eat dinner together. Growing up I thought everyone ate dinner as a family. Yet now I realize that is not the case in fact most families eat dinner together only about four times a week and ten percent of families only eat together twice a week. And as children get older and the number of activities they are involved in increases the meals eaten as a family decrease, just when teenagers can benefit from family dinners the most.
Studies show that families who eat dinner together benefit in a variety of ways. Eating together helps families achieve better communication and build stronger relationships, children do better in school and are better adjusted as teens and adults, and the entire family enjoys better nutrition.
Eating dinner together as a family provides opportunities for communication. A “Family Dinner Experiment” conducted by Oprah Winfrey in 1993 challenged five families to eat dinner together every night for a month for at least a half an hour. At first the families found it difficult but by the end of the study they wanted to continue eating dinner together. The biggest surprise for the parents was “how much their children treasured the dependable time with their parents at the table.”
Although according to Dr. Sue Butkus parents need to be careful not to control conversations and suppress their children’s opinions. Dinnertime should be a time for open discussion and all members should be encouraged to participate. Don’t discuss school, unless it is successes, and avoid any topics that cause conflict.
Superior Academic Performance
Family meals also help improve school performance. A 1994 survey by Louis Harris and Associates had 2000 seniors take an academic test and answer a list of personal questions. Researchers found that “Students who regularly ate dinner with their families 4 or more times a week scored better than those who ate family dinners 3 or fewer times a week. These results crossed racial lines and were a greater indicator than whether the child was in a one or two-parent family.” Elementary students who ate regular family dinners also scored better than their peers who didn’t. Studies also found that preschoolers whose families ate together had better language skills because mealtime served as an opportunity for them to hear more spoken language and a chance to process adult conversations.
A Harvard study, of 65 children over 8 years, found that family dinners were the activity that most fostered healthy child development. Another study by Drs. Bowden and Zeisz found that “the teens who were best adjusted ate a meal with an adult in their family an average of 5.4 days a week, compared to 3.3 days for teens who didn’t show good adjustment.” The well-adjusted teens were “less likely to do drugs or be depressed and were more motivated at school and had better relationships.” Dr. Bowden said, “that mealtimes were a sort of ‘marker’ for other positive family attributes and seemed to play an important role in helping teens cope well with the stresses of adolescence.” Having dinner as a family provides stability and communication that is important for children, even in families where problems exist.
Researchers have found that when families eat dinner together that they “consume more vegetables, fruit and juice, and less soda.” Children who eat dinner as a family eat less fatty foods and receive higher amounts of fiber, minerals, and vitamins essential to the body. A Harvard study found “that children who ate family dinners more frequently had more healthy eating habits” overall, even when not at home.
Parents do need to be careful that they don’t use food as a reward, punishment, or require their child to eat everything on their plate. Children usually eat what they need and forcing them to eat more can cause problems. Parents should not provide food as a way to calm their child when she is upset or hurt. These practices can cause eating disorders.
The reasons families don’t eat dinner together are familiar.
- Oftentimes conflicting schedules prevent family meals. Yet schedules can be worked around when I was a teenager our family often adjusted the time that we ate so that everyone could be present. We usually ate meals together at least six days a week.
- Other families report that they don’t have time to cook. Child nutrition expert Ellyn Satter says, “I often get resistance when I press for family meals. Parents just feel they don’t have the necessary time to shop and cook.” Her response is “that eating well is one of life’s important issues, and parents need to be willing to devote time and energy to it.”
- Some parents profess that they don’t know how to cook. But there are so many simple cookbooks out there that it really isn’t a good excuse.
- The last reason is the saddest of all. Many families, about half, have the television on during dinner and about 1/3 of families eat in front of the television. This does not allow for much family interaction.
Maybe some of these reasons sound familiar to you because you have used them yourself. But there really is no excuse for not eating dinner together as a family when you look at the benefits for both parents and children. After all who wouldn’t want to have better communication with their children or see them perform better academically? I know I would.