Family meals are rare these days. We're often on the go with food - eating while running out the door, in the car, stopping with for a quick bite, chowing down at sporting events, etc. However, several studies show how important family meals can be for children of all ages. Often our clients have to clean lots of clutter off of their dinner tables so that they can use it! Learn about the health and cognitive benefits associated with simply having sit-down meals together.
- Developmental Boosts
For the littlest family members, sharing a dinner at the table with parents does several awesome things. First, it helps promote language skills as you talk with them, and your partner, about the day. It also helps them develop patience and dexterity through the use of utensils. And it helps them develop social skills that include manners and taking turns.
Researchers found that for young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read aloud to. The researchers counted the number of rare words – those not found on a list of 3,000 most common words – that the families used during dinner conversation. Young kids learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks aloud. Kids who have a large vocabulary read earlier and more easily.
Older children also reap intellectual benefits from family dinners. For school-age youngsters, regular mealtime is an even more powerful predictor of high achievement scores than time spent in school, doing homework, playing sports or doing art.
Other researchers reported a consistent association between family dinner frequency and teen academic performance. Adolescents who ate family meals five to seven times a week were twice as likely to get A’s in school as those who ate dinner with their families fewer than two times a week.
- Improved Mental Health
One study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that kids who regularly enjoyed family meals were less likely to experience symptoms of depression and less likely to get into drug use.
A stack of studies link regular family dinners with lowering a host of high risk teenage behaviors parents fear: smoking, binge drinking, marijuana use, violence, school problems, eating disorders and sexual activity. In one study of more than 5,000 Minnesota teens, researchers concluded that regular family dinners were associated with lower rates of depression and suicidal thoughts. In a very recent study, kids who had been victims of cyberbullying bounced back more readily if they had regular family dinners. Family dinners have been found to be a more powerful deterrent against high-risk teen behaviors than church attendance or good grades.
There are also associations between regular family dinners and good behaviors, not just the absence of bad ones. In a New Zealand study, a higher frequency of family meals was strongly associated with positive moods in adolescents. Similarly, other researchers have shown that teens who dine regularly with their families also have a more positive view of the future, compared to their peers who don’t eat with parents.
- Bonded Families
Research also suggests that when a family eats together they feel a strong bond with one another. Everyone leads disconnected lives at work and school, and this time allows them to reconnect . And you’ll also be able to keep tabs on your kids’ lives.
In most industrialized countries, families don’t farm together, play musical instruments or stitch quilts on the porch. So dinner is the most reliable way for families to connect and find out what’s going on with each other. In a survey, American teens were asked when they were most likely to talk with their parents: dinner was their top answer. Kids who eat dinner with their parents experience less stress and have a better relationship with them.
- Physical Health
Families that eat together make better food choices. One study from Stanford University reported that kids who eat family dinners are less likely to grub on fried food, while seeking out stuff like fruits and veggies.
Additionally, research from the American Society For Nutrition found that young children who ate at home with their families had a lower body-mass index than kids who did not. That’s most likely due to the fact that home cooking is healthier than restaurant meals, which boast larger portion sizes and higher calorie counts. And the nutritional benefits keep paying dividends even after kids grow up: young adults who ate regular family meals as teens are less likely to be obese and more likely to eat healthily once they live on their own.
KEEPING THE CONVERSATION GOING
So, now that you’re at the dinner table together, how do you keep the conversation flowing? Here are some ideas - however for even more ideas, check out the book: The Family Dinner for recipes, table games and conversation starters.
- Find an inspiring story in the newspaper (yes, newspaper) to discuss with the family. Everyone has to listen to each others’ opinions or views without interruptions. No one can allow the conversation devolve to making fun. Understand that the “right answer” may not exist or a conclusion may not materialize by the end of the meal. It’s your choice if you want to wade into something controversial.
- Have conversations with your kids at the table about issues you care about. Longer conversations provide kids with a chance to think, hear new words and expand their own conversation skills
- Some conversation topics that may interest older kids:
- What do you do if a friend’s parent shows up to drive you home from a party but you can tell he or she has been drinking?
- If you had the change to read people’s minds, would you? What are the pros and cons?
- You see a schoolmate being bullied, but you don’t know her well. DO you step in and help?
- If someone tells you a secret and you promise not to tell before hearing it, and it turns out that it could hurt another person, do you break your silence?
- If you accept an invitation and a better offer comes along, is it okay to cancel the first one?
- Every June The New York Times and other newspapers highlight great commencement speeches chock-full of advice, insights and powerful tales of struggle and successes- why not share their valuable lessons at the dinner table?
- Get to Know you Games - think you know your group really well? Don’t be so sure! Try these games and learn something new about your loved ones!
- My special talent is…
- Something I like about myself…
- What I know about you or What I like about you…
- Personal pet peeves (an annoyance) and idiosyncrasies (any personal peculiarity or mannerism)
- Would you rather…
- Be really good at one thing or just okay at a lot of things?
- Listen to an opera on the radio or watch golf on TV?
- Sit next to a brilliant person at dinner who smelled bad or a boring person who smelled fantastic?
- Conversation Starters - here are some questions to get the fun started at your dinner table
- What was your high today and what was your low?
- Tell me one thing that made you happy today
- What was one cool thing you learned today?
- Name something you are afraid of
- Name 3 places where you would never go
- Come up with a family motto or mission statement (EX work hard, be kind.)
- Name some things you take for granted