Better Together: Why Family Meals Make for Happier Kids

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When I was growing up, dinner was eaten either in a rush before my family headed out the door or in the car on the way home from one of my myriad lessons, rehearsals, classes, and activities. As a highly scheduled child, I didn’t have a lot of downtime, and since my mom didn’t cook much and my dad was usually working, we didn’t share many family dinners beyond Christmas and Thanksgiving. 


Well, add that to the list of ways in which my parents apparently screwed me up big time, because recent research has shown that carving out time for a family dinner is one of the most powerful indicators of healthy, happy, and well-adjusted kids. 


The Family That Eats Together …
In the past few years, a host of studies have emerged claiming that eating dinner as a family can provide serious benefits for children. In 2005, research at Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) found that the number of children who report having dinner regularly with their families was on the rise—about 58 percent, up from 47 percent in 1998—and that children who experienced family meals were less likely to be tempted by marijuana, alcohol, and other drugs, and less likely to smoke cigarettes. A 2000 survey at Harvard Medical School revealed that nine- to fourteen-year-olds who ate dinner with their families usually consumed greater quantities of healthy fruits and vegetables, and less soda and fast food. They were also more likely to accept new foods their parents offered them and to make healthy food choices on their own. For girls in particular, eating dinner with parents has been shown to correlate with a reduced risk of crash dieting, having distorted body image, or using aggressive weight-loss methods. 


The CASA study also found that kids who shared dinner with their families were 40 percent more likely to get good grades in school. Out of teenagers who dined with their parents and siblings fewer than three times per week, 20 percent got below-average or failing grades, compared with only 9 percent of their peers who ate family dinner regularly. Researchers at Vanderbilt University even found that dinner-table conversation among families was the best predictor of children’s linguistic and literary development: kids with advanced language abilities came from families who ate dinner together more often and whose conversations were full of questions, jokes, storytelling, and interaction. 


These benefits for children, especially adolescents, have been shown to cross racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines, but some glaring distinctions exist between families who share meals and those who don’t. The CASA study found that families with the least educated parents were the most likely to enforce family dinners, along with those with foreign-born children. Along racial lines, Hispanic families were the most likely to eat as a group—more than half had regular family dinners—whereas only about 40 percent of black teenagers and 39 percent of white teenagers reported eating frequently with their families. 


Chat ’n’ Chew
It doesn’t matter if you sit down to a roast made from scratch or takeout Thai; the important part of eating together isn’t actually the food. What counts is taking the time to sit, talk, engage with your relatives, and form stronger family bonds. Many experts think that the idea of family dinner just shows that families who are functional enough to come together and eat are simply more well adjusted in the first place, and thus more likely to have intelligent, well-adjusted kids. Especially in the adolescent years, parental involvement is another big predictor of healthy children, and eating family meals is strongly correlated with parents who are involved and active in their kids’ lives. Families that make eating dinner together a priority are also more likely to value reading, education, and enriching experiences. It’s also possible that kids who have dinner with their families have less unsupervised time to get bored and into trouble. 


Take Time to Make Time
Of course, many parents would never intentionally reject the opportunity to have dinner with their children, but the problem most busy people encounter is that kids have school and extracurricular obligations and parents may work late, so the priority at the end of the day is simply to get everyone fed as quickly and easily as possible, not to take the time to plan and execute a complicated meal. If you’d like to make it a goal to enjoy more family dinners, begin by aiming for just a couple of group meals per week, and eventually increase the number once you’ve gotten in the habit. And it doesn’t count if all the members of a family choose their own food and gather in front of the television—everyone should share one meal, staying away from distractions. Parents.com recommends starting by turning off the tube and the computer and silencing all cell phones. 


The meal doesn’t have to be an elaborate, organic, locally sourced feast, either. If you don’t have enough time in the evening to cook from scratch, don’t be ashamed of taking some cooking shortcuts to get dinner on the table and conversation flowing. Reduce stress by planning weekly meals ahead of time and doing the prep work on a day when you’re not rushed, and remember that it’s okay to use pasta sauce from a jar, canned vegetables, or other premade and prepackaged food items for the sake of ease and expedience. If your meal does require a large amount of preparation, it’s okay to put the kids to work, too, using their nimble little fingers to wash, peel, unwrap, stir, and accomplish other simple tasks. 


Eating dinner as a family is an irreplaceable experience, and while I didn’t end up a criminal or a high-school dropout, I didn’t really get to know my parents until I was out of the house. Ultimately, not having dinner with my family didn’t ruin me for life, but I do wish that we had spent more evenings discussing our days, laughing, and becoming better friends. And if deepening your bond with your family isn’t a compelling enough reason for having dinner together, I don’t know what is.

Updated on March 2, 2011

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