The 5 Benefits -- and a Few Risks -- of Eating Together at the Dinner Table
Life has a way of pulling families in a million different
directions all at the same time. While you are trying to get
home from work at a reasonable hour, your spouse may be running
all over town doing errands, and meanwhile your kids are tied
up with activities of their own. All of this scrambling makes
something that, in theory at least, should be simple sound
like a monumental feat.
What we are referring to is sitting down, as a family, to
have dinner together most nights of the week. It may take
some finagling, some rearranging of schedules and some tenacity
on everyone's part, but those who have made the effort and
succeeded have found that the rewards made it well worth their
"Families that do have dinner together often are
families whose parents are fully engaged with their
kids. We're certainly not back to 'Leave It to Beaver'
and 'Father Knows Best,' but it's heading in that direction,"
said Richard D. Mulieri, a spokesman for the National
Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
Interestingly enough, while it seems that hardly anyone has
taken the time to eat dinner as a family since the 1950s,
the number of U.S. families who do eat dinner together is
actually increasing (reversing a decades-long downward trend).
In fact, in 2005, 58 percent of kids aged 12 to 17 reported
that they ate dinner with their families at least five times
a week, compared to only 47 percent in 1998, a survey by the
National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia
What benefits are these frequent family-meal-attendees reaping?
Let us count the ways
1. Better Nutrition
Numerous studies have overwhelmingly pointed to the fact
that families who eat together have better overall nutrition.
In turn, this means they also have a lower risk of many diseases
and of being overweight or obese.
One such study, conducted by Harvard researchers and published
in the Archives of Family Medicine, found that families who
reported eating together "every day" or "almost
every day" took in more healthy nutrients, such as:
- Vitamins B6 and B12
- Vitamins C and E
than families who said they "never" or "only
sometimes" ate meals together.
Another study by the University of Minnesota found that children
whose families ate meals together often consumed more fruits
and vegetables and fewer snack foods than those who did not.
2. Kids do Better in School, Less Likely to Take Drugs
Not only have studies found that kids who eat with their
families get better grades in school and have a more positive
attitude about their future, but they also are less likely
to get involved with negative behaviors like drinking alcohol,
taking drugs or smoking.
The Columbia University study found that teens who only eat
dinner with their families twice a week or less are:
- 3 times as likely to try marijuana
- 2.5 times more likely to smoke cigarettes
- 1.5 times as likely to try alcohol
compared to teens who eat five or more family dinners
3. Automatic "Check-In" Time
Perhaps the noticed benefits that kids display from eating
family dinners comes from the fact that it gives parents a
set time every night to "check-in" with their kids.
"People are really starting to understand that this
is an important thing," said Richard D. Mulieri, a spokesman
for the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
"Families that do have dinner together often are families
whose parents are fully engaged with their kids
People who do eat dinner together regularly often say that
being able to talk and find out about each other's days is
the best part. Sitting down together at the dinner table --
sans TV, phones calls or other distractions -- is the perfect
opportunity to discuss what's going on in your lives.
Kids who eat dinner with their families regularly are
less depressed, less likely to take drugs and alcohol
and get better grades in school.
4. Help Your Kids Develop Language Skills
When it comes to family events, gamily dinners were the most
important one in contributing to children's language development,
according to a Harvard University study.
"When there is more than one adult at the table, it
tends to make talk richer, topics are established by adult
interest and can be extremely valuable opportunities for children
to learn," said Dr. Catherine Snow, professor of education
at Harvard and the lead researcher of the study.
5. Spend Time Together as a Family
Looking back on their childhoods, many parents will recall
their nightly dinner hour, when everyone was expected to sit
down at the table. Many will also recall these times as some
of their most cherished memories. Establishing this routine
with your own family will give you time to bond as a family
now, and memories to fondly look back on later.
What About the Risks?
Believe it or not, there are some risks to eating together
as a family. In order to be successful, family dinners must
be enjoyable -- for you, for your spouse, for your kids. If
everyone is tense, irritable or unhappy, there won't be a
lot of conversation, bonding or other benefits.
So, in order to ensure that family dinners are beneficial,
be careful of what you speak of.
"It's not the time to talk about cleaning their room
or curfews," says Susan Moores, a registered dietitian.
"Instead focus on open-ended questions about things your
kids are interested in or things that will get them talking."
Also, stay away from the "clean your plate" mentality.
Allow kids to serve themselves and just take a little bit.
Forcing a child to eat everything on his plate will teach
him to ignore his body's cues that he's full.
Finally, remember that it's OK (and probably necessary) to
keep things simple. Have grilled or baked chicken with a salad,
or throw meat and veggies in a crock-pot in the morning for
a warm meal after work. You can also try meals that your kids
can help prepare, like turkey burgers or individual pizzas
they top themselves. Remember also that you can still sit
down for a family meal even on those nights when you do order
pizza or other take-out food.
The bottom line is, do what works for you -- whether that's
cooking extra meals on the weekend to serve during the week,
preparing meals in the morning or eating simpler meals, like
sandwiches and soup, sometimes -- so that you're able to sit
down and enjoy the meal too.
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