Why family meals should be a year-round tradition

Mpls/St.Paul, November 2009


There comes a point during nearly every dinner party and smorgasbord we’re likely to attend with loved ones this time of year when someone at the table—often the one with the lowest percentage of body fat—will remind the rest of us just how unhealthy this sort of eating is. “Do you realize how many calories are in that gravy?” he or she will ask. “Do you know what goes into that pecan pie? Do you have any idea how long you’ll have to walk to burn off a meal like this?”

The answers to those questions are as follows: 45 calories per tablespoon; corn syrup, eggs, sugar, butter, pecans, flour and salt; and 12 hours of brisk walking for the average adult to burn off the typical 3,000-calorie turkey and trimmings repast.

Those figures spell trouble for our figures, but focusing on them overlooks so much else that goes on at our family gatherings—the convergence of generations, the confluence of elbows, the lighting of candles, the breaking of bread, the passing of salt and pepper, the minding of p’s and q’s. It’s true that holiday eating (and overeating) adds, on average, one to seven pounds to our bodies, depending on which statistics you trust. But the get-together also add an essential ingredient to good health in which the next generation of Americans is known to be deficient: frequency of family meals.

In fact, in a recent UNICEF report ranking the well-being of children in the world’s 22 richest countries, the United States came in second to last, ahead of only the United Kingdom—such an unimpressive showing the pilgrims may wonder why they bothered. Dragging down our overall score (based on criteria ranging from infant mortality to the number of books in the average home) was a particularly poor showing in a survey that asked 15-year-olds if they ate the main meal of the day with their parents at least several times a week. Only about two-thirds of the American teens queried said they dined with their family regularly, while in such higher ranked countries as Italy, Iceland, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium, nine out of ten said they broke bread with their parents almost every day.

The concern here is not whether our kids are eating enough—rising obesity rates suggest they’re doing more than cleaning their plates. What they may be missing is the nourishment that comes from sharing a table and the day’s stories with the adults who care about them most and having to compromise over a communal dish (rather than being catered to, cafeteria-style). Dinner is likely one of the few events in the day when kids have to set aside their personal preference for something that will satisfy the group.

“As human beings, we are hard-wired to connect with one another, to be in relationship with other human beings, and it has long been understood that family, however it is defined, is a primal part of that sense of place, belonging , and connection across all times, places and cultures,” says Michael Resnick, director of the Healthy Youth Development Prevention Research Center at the University of Minnesota. “The research on family meals is reaffirming these older, deeper truths about  the fundamental need of youth—indeed the basic need of all human beings—to belong and feel connected to others.”

Resnick may talk like a psychologist, be he’s actually a professor of pediatrics and an expert on the factors that reduce the physical and emotional health risks young people face. Family meals function as powerful preventive medicine, he says. Research during the past decade has shown that the more often families eat together, the more likely the kids at the table will be to eat their vegetables, do well in school, and delay having sex—and the less likely they will be to smoke, drink, do drugs develop eating disorders, become depressed, and consider suicide.

The findings in favor of family meals are so overwhelming that rather than fretting about the fat content of the season’s big gatherings, we’d be wiser to insist on serving up what’s healthy about those meals throughout the year. Yet, the suggestion that we ought to be dining together more often tends to make even the most health-minded moms and dads a bit defensive. For instance, when I read that Italians topped the charts for dining alla famiglia, I was resentful. “I’d have time to make plenty of pasta sauce, too, if I lived in a  country that closed down for naps in the middle of the day,” I grumbled. “Unfortunately, I live in the real world.”

Jayne Fulkerson, a psychologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing, has heard this sort of reaction before and doesn’t let it deter her mission to improve the quality and quantity of family meals in this country. An investigator with Project EAT, the university research plan that’s contributed many of the most-cited facts in the family meal canon, Fulkerson and other researchers have been visiting homes around the Twin Cities to see what families actually eat together. Though she’s still analyzing her data, one anecdotal finding is consistent. “Parents are a bit hard on themselves,” she says. “Eating together is something they want to do—they know it’s good for everyone—but they’re tired, their kids are picky, and everyone seems to wish it could all be less stressful.”

Yet a study released last summer by Brigham Young University researchers who followed 1,580 IBM employees revealed that making it home for a family meal—even a frantic one—seemed to reduce stress for working mothers. The study also found that men and women who had family dinners reported higher satisfaction with their work and family relationships, even when spending long hours on the job. Conversely, those who had jobs that interfered with their family meals tended to feel worse about both their professional and family lives. Though the findings sparked complaints in the blogosphere about the extra pressure on working mothers to fry up the bacon, and on spouses who don’t do their share, a closer look at what makes family meals effective should have everyone breathing easier.

While it’s true that Project EAT studies have shown that more frequent family meals raise the odds that kids will actually come in contact with fruits, vegetables, and calcium, the quality of the food may not be the most important part of the dinner. “Kids like the routine of family meals, the expectation that they’re going to be present for something, that they belong to something,” explains Marla Eisenberg, an assistant professor in pediatrics at the University of Minnesota. Eisenberg’s most recent research into family meals found that girls who ate with their parents more than five times a week were far less likely to drink alcohol or take drugs five years later. “My best guess is what really matters is the act of coming together and sharing the time and the meal. If you do it with take-out, that’s better than nothing.”

Nor does your family have to resemble the Cleavers for your children to get the full effect. Eisenberg refers to a recent study by colleague Dianne Neumark-Sztainer suggesting that family meals provided positive effects even among kids who report a not-so-great relationship with their parents.

One of the most fascinating findings about family meals is that time spent around the table together is a stronger predictor of a child’s academic success than time spent in school, at church, studying, playing sports, or during other enriching activities. That’s apparently because dinner time is generally the most language-rich part of the day, when parents are most likely to discuss ideas and define words for their progeny–and vice versa. Case in point, the discussion at our table the other night: “If Superman is from Krypton, how come you get so sick around kryptonite?” our six-year-old wanted to know.

My husband and I were stumped, but his four-year-old brother proposed that “oxidation” caused by exposure to the Earth’s atmosphere reversed Superman’s immunity to his home rock. The kid’s vocabulary was impressive, the half-chewed hot dog in his mouth as he spoke not so much.

“Family meals are just one piece of the puzzle,” Eisenberg says. “It’s not a magic bullet, it’s not going to save every child, but it is one thing that families can do, and adding one or two meals a week can make a big difference.”

Planning those meals – which according to one U of M study, almost half the families sample didn’t do – has been shown to improve the chances that your kids will eat fruits and vegetables at meal time and cuts down on the early evening “What’s for dinner?” grazing that derails so many good intentions.

Finally, there is no rule that says the family meal has to be dinner. “The Saturday breakfast or a Sunday brunch could work just as well if everyone is there and able to enjoy it,” says Fulkerson. Resnick adds that parents should resist the temptation to turn the meal into a “disciplinary dumping ground” where problems that have accumulated over the past several days are aired. Better, he says, to create a sense of ritual — “sharing stories, baking bread.” That means, by the way, turning off the television, which remains on during the mealtime in four out of ten households surveyed. “Talk with one another!” says Resnick.

Talk turns out to be one area in which American families seem to excel. Though UNICEF gave the United States poor scores when it came to family meals, we ranked 8th when 15-year-olds were asked how many had parents who spent some time each day talking to them. Experts say if we move those conversations to the dinner table more often we could beat out the Italians — and reap the health benefits for the rest of our lives.





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