Another Simple Thing: Eat Dinner Together
A View from My Window: Reflections of the Executive Director
Last month, I proposed “reading aloud to kids” as an example of “one simple thing” we can do to build a safer, healthier world for children. In the coming months, I’ll share other ideas for improving the quality of life for children and families—actions that I hope will ultimately help eliminate abuse and neglect. Today’s suggestion: eat dinner together.
I grew up in an Irish-Italian family in which dinner was sacred. I still remember shopping for a new table after the third of my four siblings arrived. It was definitely crowded in our small kitchen—both for space and getting a word in edgewise! Conversations were lively, and the bonds established then remain strong, decades later.
As a parent, I upped the ante by engaging my children in the food preparation. They all had daily meal-related chores, and were expected to plan and cook a balanced meal once each week by the time they were ten. While they resented the responsibility then, they thanked me later—when they moved out of their college dorms and into their own homes. Now, as a grandfather, I regularly enjoy family meals that include three (and sometimes four) generations.
According to The Family Dinner Project, a Harvard-based non-profit,
(R)esearch has shown what parents have known for a long time: Sharing a fun family meal is good for the spirit, brain and health of all family members. Recent studies link regular family meals with the kinds of behaviors that parents want for their children: higher grade-point averages, resilience and self-esteem. Additionally, family meals are linked to lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders and depression. We also believe in the power of family dinners to nourish ethical thinking.
The organization’s website offers recipes, dinner games, and age-appropriate “conversation starters” to engage kids in thoughtful dialogue about things that matter. It also includes tips for busy parents and stories of how families are reaping the rewards of their new meal habits.
Washington State University researchers Martha Marino and Sue Butkus attribute ten benefits to regular family meals:
1. Eating together provides time that kids can count on spending with their parents.
2.Kids who share at least four meals (per week) with their families do better on achievement tests than those who eat three or fewer meals with their families.
3. Kids’ thinking skills and linguistic development improve. (This may be due to the longer conversations that tend to take place during family meals.)
4. Family meals contribute to a child’s healthy development even more than play or story time.
5. Teens who eat more meals with their families are less likely to be depressed.
6. Teenagers who share more family meals are less likely to take drugs.
7. Eating more meals together also results in teens’ being more motivated to learn.
8. Teens who share more family meals experience better relationships with their families and friends.
9. Kids who are in the habit of eating with their families eat more vegetables.
10. Kids who share family meals drink less soda.
In a world where many families no longer conform to a “traditional” model, family meals likewise take various forms.
Kelli Kollings, Clinical Support Coordinator for Children’s Center, shares a meal with her niece, Loretta, and makes weekly visits to play, eat and read together.
“I don’t have kids of my own yet,” observes Kelli Kollings, Clinical Support Coordinator for Children’s Center. “But I have two nieces I adore. Loretta lives in Portland and I visit her every Tuesday evening to play, eat and read. It’s my favorite night of the week! Spending this time together has really strengthened our relationship—and it’s a lot of fun!”
Kollings also addresses the inevitable time challenges. “I realize that spending time as a family can be difficult,” she admits, “when you’re trying to coordinate work schedules, after-school activities, and all the other things parents have to juggle! But everyone has to eat—and doing so together as a family builds a sense of community and love.”
Healthier nutrition. Healthier conversation. Healthier living and learning habits. They’re all outcomes of regular family meals. If you’re not currently eating together as a family, why not give it a try? I’d love to hear how it goes!
PS. Another great resource: North Dakota State University’s newsletter, “Eat Smart. Play Hard. Together,” includes a lengthy list of family meal benefits.