Family at the dinner table

Family meals, done right, have been shown to improve kids' eating habits and reduce their risk of substance abuse, obesity, and eating disorders. But we've all seen what can happen when things go horribly wrong: parents nagging, teens texting, tweens teasing, and toddlers redecorating the walls in a lovely shade of Pureed Carrot.

A study published in Child Development in 2011 looked at the factors that add up to the first type of mealtime experience. Researchers put videocameras in the homes of children with asthma and recorded 200 family meals. By coding behaviors in the videos, they identified patterns of interaction that were linked to better asthma control.

"Basically, we looked at how families communicated and acted during meals," says lead author Barbara Fiese, PhD, director of the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "We found that this was related to the child's asthma symptoms, including lung function." That may be partly because children from families with positive table talk were more likely to stick with their asthma treatment.

18 minutes to better communication
Fiese believes that gathering 'round the dinner table four or five times a week is a realistic goal to shoot for - more realistic than every night for most families. "And it doesn't need to be an elaborate affair," she says. "You don't have to put candelabras on the table."

On average, family meals only last about 18 minutes. In families with a health-promoting communication style, Fiese found that the 18 minutes typically broke down this way:

  • 2 minutes or less spent on action - Turning off the TV and phone (grown-ups, too), bringing dishes in from the kitchen
  • 4 minutes spent on behavior management - Reminding kids about manners, telling little Janey to stop kicking her brother
  • 12 minutes spent on positive communication - Talking about each other's day, discussing activities, friendly joking around

In contrast, among families of kids whose asthma wasn't well controlled, more time was spent on action, such as texting or talking on the phone, watching TV, or popping up and down from the table. And instead of mostly positive communication, these families tended to make more critical or disapproving remarks.

There's nothing magic about sitting around the dinner table. It's what happens there that matters. Fiese says, "If you keep the emphasis on positive communication, there is a good chance that family meals will be beneficial for your child's health."

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