It’s 6:00 p.m. and the microwave beeps. While Sarah Gray goes to retrieve her instant lasagna, her 12 year old daughter heads off to her room with her cell phone glued to her ear and a bag of chips in her hand. Her teenage son is already sitting in front of the TV with a hamburger he grabbed on his way home from baseball practice. And Sarah doesn’t expect her husband to be home from work for another hour.
Sound familiar? This used to be a typical evening in the Gray home and may resonate with many people in these fast-paced times. Between conflicting schedules, demanding jobs, piles of homework, and the distractions of technology, families just don’t seem to have the time or the will to sit down for a meal together anymore. Yet experts say that regularly eating dinner together is an important part of a child’s upbringing and shouldn’t be pushed aside.
“Being together as a family in a meal reconfirms the fact that a child is a part of a family, a basic structure in the community, where he can feel loved, sheltered and protected,” says Marifi Cabaluna, a pediatrician with Adventist Health in Hanford. “This is a perfect time to discuss the particulars of the day for each member of the family. It’s a time for reinforcing communication, sharing laughter, and being able to share one’s sense of humor or silliness without feeling awkward or judged.”
Sarah Gray made the decision a year ago to reinstate family dinners in her household after realizing that she hadn’t had a meaningful conversation with her children in quite some time.
“I would ask about school and get, ‘It was fine,’ in response,” she said. “I was always on top of their homework and asked about the activities they were in, but I never felt like they were ever really engaged when we talked. Since we all began eating together on a pretty regular basis, I definitely feel closer to my kids.”
What Gray didn’t realize was that by bringing her family together for nightly dinners, she was also helping to safeguard her children against some of the pitfalls of adolescence.
Researchers from the National Centers on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University revealed some surprising data in 2006 after comparing children in families who had fewer than three family dinners per week to children in families who had at least five family dinners per week. Their results showed that teens who ate less frequently with their families were twice as likely to have used tobacco, almost twice as likely to have used alcohol, and one and a half times likelier to have used marijuana. Teens who participated in frequent family dinners were more likely to do well in school and have better self-esteem.
The benefits that come from eating meals as a family don’t stop there. Even for the youngest members of the family there are many valuable reasons to bring everyone to the table, nutrition being a big one. A study published by two doctors in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found that children and adolescents who share family meals three or more times per week are more likely to be in a normal weight range and have healthier dietary and eating patterns than those who share fewer than three family meals together. In addition, a Harvard study found that children who regularly eat with their family have diets higher in fiber, calcium, iron, folate and vitamins B6, B12, C and E.
“Most families who eat together also most likely had the food prepared at home, such that the amount of salt, fat and calories are directly controlled,” Cabaluna said. “Kids who are allowed to eat by themselves are usually in front of the television or computer, and are most likely grazing food instead of finishing a complete meal. Most likely these kids are also eating junk food instead of healthier stuff prepared by a parent.”
Unfortunately, knowing the benefits of dinners together doesn’t make implementing the routine any easier. Two working parents, single-parent families, and children with busy after-school activities and social lives are all factors that can make family meals a difficult task. And that’s not even mentioning some of the negative attitudes kids might display at having to break away from their ipads or video games to sit down for a meal with Mom and Dad. So what’s a parent to do?
“Make the most of every opportunity,” Cabaluna says. “Perhaps start with some meals on weekends, then at dinner time on weekdays. The bottom line is every family should make it a priority, enough for them to make their schedules work around being able to gather together for at least one meal a day. As the saying goes, ‘If there’s a will, there’s a way.’”
Although Sarah Gray met with some initial resistance from her children – and even her husband – when she started asking her family to sit down for dinner together, she says that family meals are now a part of the day that everyone enjoys.
“We’ve really kind of rediscovered each other, I think,” she said. “It’s kind of like a timeout from the rest of the world where it’s just us and it’s just about being together. I’m not going to pretend like it’s always perfect. Not everyone can be in a great mood every day. But at least we’re all there. We’re together. We’re a family. And for me, that’s what really matters.”