Ah, the beginning of another year, time to reflect and make resolutions. If you’re looking for suggestions, how about sitting down for family dinners? We’ve all seen the Norman Rockwell painting of the family sitting down for Thanksgiving. Multiple generations are ready to share the turkey. Just how they planned to carve that turkey at the dining room table has always been a mystery to me, but that’s another story. The message that picture sends is one of a family coming together for conversation and sustenance.
More than two-thirds of the families I saw in my private pediatric practice in St. Charles had two working parents. And many more families have only one parent in the home. This, along with the many schedule demands placed on parents and children, make it difficult to coordinate the family dinner. How important is the family dinner? Is it worth the effort to make it happen?
Data suggests that children whose families who eat together at least four times weekly have lower rates of obesity, substance abuse and enjoy more success in school. Families who eat together talk together. Children learn new words, learn how to carry on a conversation with adults, and have a chance to be an active participant in the family. Sharing the news of their day makes them feel valued. Children can learn more about their world and environment. Parents can provide clarification and interpretation of events, and share their values and experience.
There’s a degree of confidence and security enabled by the family dinner. Children who eat with their families are more likely to recognize boundaries, have less behavior and deportment issues, and engage in fewer high-risk behaviors. A report from the Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse documents that teens who have fewer than three family meals weekly are three and a half times more likely to abuse drugs, two and a half times more likely to smoke tobacco, and one and a half times more likely to have consumed alcohol than their peers who enjoy more frequent meals with their parents and siblings. Children who eat with their families have fewer problems with eating disorders and are less likely to be depressed.
There are significant nutritional benefits to eating together. Family diners facilitate discussion of healthful foods and good nutrition. Surveys have shown that children who frequently dine with their families eat more fruits and vegetables, and consume better amounts of nutrients such as iron, calcium and fiber. Family meals are an excellent setting for trying new foods. Portion size is much easier to control in meals at home. The average restaurant meal contains 50 to 60 percent more calories than a meal prepared at home.
Eating at home is cost-effective, as well. The average restaurant meal can cost almost twice as much as a meal prepared at home and—even if she’s earned it—nobody ever leaves a tip for mom.
How can we make family meals a reality? Make it a resolution. Plan to have family dinners as often as possible, at least four to five times a week. Be positive at these meals, don’t point out faults or constantly offer corrections. Turn off the TV and leave phones in another room. Involve the family in meal preparation and clean up. Cook favorites, as well as new and novel foods. The family meal will require effort, planning and coordination but the outcomes are well worth the work.
Dr. Joseph Kahn is president of Mercy Kids (mercykids.org), an expansive network of pediatric care dedicated to meeting the needs of every child, every day.