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The Art and Science of Family Dinner

A way to improve the physical and mental health of children and teens.

August de Richelieu from Pexels
Source: August de Richelieu from Pexels

The news about declining COVID-19 rates around the country may foreshadow a return to more “normal” rhythms and patterns of behavior. Among the casualties of online learning and socializing may have been traditional family dinners. An October 2021 article, “More Parents Are Rejecting Nightly Family Dinners – And Experts Say That’s OK,” examines parents’ anxiety from research studies that seem to tell them they’re doing everything wrong.

Author Julie Kendrick posits that skipping family dinners is seen as the worst offense, noting, “The media often has summarized the studies this way: If you aren’t eating dinner together nightly, your kids are doomed to lives of misery and mayhem” (Kendrick, 2021). Parents’ stress is amplified by the knowledge that their late working hours and their children’s conflicting school activities and sports are the two most common obstacles to maintaining family dinner schedules.

Professor Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, division head of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota and a principal researcher for Project EAT (Eating and Activity over Time), speaks in the same article to a “protective effect” for families who eat together. She offers, “I personally think there’s something magical when people break bread and share their days with one another” and cautions that there is a growing chorus of voices suggesting that perhaps too much pressure has been placed on parents, maybe especially moms, to stage a family friendly meal every day.

The article also cites Katja Rowell, a medical doctor and responsive feeding specialist, who says, “Our society puts far too much on mothers’ shoulders, while offering little support. The pressure to do family dinner ‘right’ can feel defeating and can even make families less likely to eat together.” Others say there should be grace and flexibility and that it’s not about the dinner but about interacting with each other.

That’s the art of family dinner.

Perhaps a one-size approach is not the best. Flexibility seems key, as is finding other times and ways to stay connected as a family unit.

So, what’s the science?

According to information offered by Stanford Children’s Health, “frequent family dinner” does indeed bring significant benefits.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University reports that that the more often children eat dinner with their parents, the less likely they are to smoke, drink, or use illicit drugs. The center compared teens who dined with families five or seven times a week with those who did so twice or less. Those who ate together more often were four times less likely to smoke, 2.5 times less likely to use marijuana, and half as likely to drink alcohol.

CASA says that teens who regularly eat dinner with their families are also more likely to get better grades and do better in school. Better grades are associated with a lower risk for substance abuse. Teens who eat with their families fewer than three times a week report that the TV is usually on during dinner or that the family does not talk much. Conversely, CASA reports that families in which teens are frequently present at dinner find lots to talk about. Common topics include school and sports; friends and social events; current events; and even family issues and problems.

CASA stresses that family dinners have a similar link to mental health. Adolescents and young adults who seek treatment for depression, anxiety, and other emotional problems are about half as likely as peers to have regular family meals (Stanford Children’s Health, 2021).

And that makes sense, according to a decade of research from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual Insurance. It revealed that increased levels of parent/child communication reduce unhealthy risk behaviors and increase emotional well-being.

The effort may be worth it. For example, there are physical health bonuses, including better nutrition as meals tend to be more balanced and thus kids are introduced to a wider variety of foods, including ones rich in grains, fiber, vitamins, and minerals (AFHK, 2021).

But what about distractions and discussions?

First, putting away smartphones, headphones, tablets, and computers helps family members to focus on each other and have rich, supportive conversations.

To help get those discussions started, parents may want to ask some open-ended questions to their kids … and each other. Here are some examples (Tarrant Area Food Bank, 2020).

  • “How did everyone’s day go?”
  • “Does anybody have a fun project they are working on at school?”
  • “What is the best experience that happened this week for you?”
  • “Does anyone have a fun story from today/this week to share?”
  • “What food group do you like most on your plate tonight?”

Family meals may be best staged as family events, where everybody has a rotating task, from making a shopping list to preparing the food to cleaning up.

Speaking of her family dinner experiences as a child, seventeen-year-old Catie Klein told me in a text message, “Family dinners were a time when my family would connect to discuss our days and made me feel more connected to all our members. At family dinners, I always felt respected and heard, and like I had a place to share.”

At the end of the day, each family needs to decide what works for them, as family dinners are both art and science.

References

AFHK. (2021). The benefits of eating meals as a family. Action for Healthy Kids. https://www.actionforhealthykids.org/the-benefits-of-eating-meals-as-a-…. (30 Oct. 2021).

Kendrick, J. (2021). More parents are rejecting nightly family dinners – some experts say that’s OK. HuffPost. October 12, 2021. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/perfect-family-dinner-study_l_61522217e4… (30 Oct. 2021).

MyPlate. (2021). What is MyPlate? U.S. Department of Agriculture. https://www.myplate.gov/eat-healthy/what-is-myplate (30 Oct. 2021).

Project EAT. (2021). Project EAT (Eating and Activity over Time). School of Public Health. University of Minnesota. https://www.sph.umn.edu/research/projects/project-eat/ (30 Oct. 2021).

Stanford Children’s Health. (2021). Family meals: more than good nutrition. Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. Standford University. https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=family-meals-more… (30 Oct. 2021).

Tarrant Area Food Bank. (2020). The importance of family meals. August 26, 2020. https://tafb.org/blog/the-importance-of-family-meals-nb25/ (30 Oct. 2021).

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