Do you remember the days when families gathered around the table to eat their meals? What happened? As we have become more modernized, mechanized, and galvanized, some traditions have fallen by the wayside. The family meal appears to have become one of these lost rituals.
Is family mealtime important? Why?
In the following article, four research authors explore this timely topic, and you will be surprised at what they have to report. With my special thanks to all of them for their willingness to share their findings, let me introduce these individuals to you:
- Gary L. Hopkins, MD, D.Ph., is a research professor in the Department of Behavioral Science at Andrews University and the associate director of the Department of Health Ministries, General Conference of Seventh day Adventists.
- Duane McBride, Ph.D., is a professor and Chair of the Department of Behavioral Science and executive director of the Institute for Prevention of Addictions at Andrews University.
- Shelley Bacon, MA, is the distance learning coordinator for AdventistLIVE in the Upper Columbia Conference.
- Maud Celestin isworking on her Master’s degree in Public Health at Loma Linda University.
"My teenager isn’t engaged in our family anymore. What can I do?" “How can I protect my children from the risky behaviors all around them?” “My son never listens to me. He’s always using some sort of technology and tunes me out.” Parents, grandparents, and concerned adults face these issues every day.
While there is no cure-all for anything in life, there is a powerful, proven tool for working with kids that is simple, inexpensive, and readily available. You can connect with your kids, help make them healthier, improve their test scores, reduce the chance for risky behavior, and grow their faith by using this simple tip: Eat family meals together!
Mealtime is not just an event where food is prepared and consumed; it is also a time to talk and interact. Discussion on a broad range of topics can lead to interactions that have the potential to develop quality relationships within the family. For these interactions to be of high quality, distractions must be eliminated. Turn off your television and cell phones and focus solely on your kids and extended family. Here are some good reasons for making the move toward meaningful family meals.
FAMILY MEALS CAN BE AN EFFECTIVE STRATEGY FOR COMBATING OBESITY
One study conducted on youngsters reported that kids who watched television during meals ate fewer vegetables, calcium-rich foods, and grains; they also drank more soft drinks than did adolescents who didn’t watch television during meals. Researchers concluded that family meals during adolescence may have a lasting positive influence on dietary quality and meal patterns in young adulthood.1
“The family meal setting has the potential to substantially impact the dietary intake of children and may provide an important avenue for obesity prevention. However, opportunities for families to have meals together have been negatively affected by changes in our society, and data suggest that the frequency of family meals may be declining.”2 One such change that affects childhood obesity is the ready and quick access to “fast foods.” Whoever is responsible for buying groceries needs to avoid bringing home fast foods to be eaten during family mealtime. Research has reported that fast foods tend to have frequent servings of chips and soda, both of which are associated with obesity among adolescents.3 Obesity is a real problem for families in the developed world, so we must do everything we can to avoid foods associated with excessive weight gain.
In research among kids attending alternative schools, students who reported never eating family meals were more likely to be overweight, to eat fewer fruits and infrequent breakfasts, and to be more depressed.4
There is clearly much scientific data available that corroborates that family meals are associated with more healthful meals and, therefore, less obesity. Think about it: obesity is a severe problem, and eating family meals is one simple strategy that can have a beneficial effect in preventing it.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN EMOTIONAL HEALTH AND ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE
Because many family schedules are jam-packed with activity, we should do all we can do to ensure that our kids enjoy academic success. Can eating meals together help in this area too?
A program called Project EAT explored the association between the frequency of family meals and the psychosocial well-being of adolescent boys and girls.5 Data analysis from this research showed that having frequent family meals was associated with higher academic performance. Another study reported similar findings; teens in that study who reported eating with their families were more likely to have higher grades in school and to go to college.6
Barbara Mayfield of Purdue University would agree that family meals improve students’ grades. She reported that “a Reader’s Digest survey of more than 2,000 high-school seniors compared academic achievement with family characteristics. Eating meals with their family was a stronger predictor of academic success than whether they lived with one or both parents.”7
Without a doubt, we all want our children to succeed. Doing something as simple as eating meals together has been shown to improve test scores and grades, even when the family situation, though divorce or separation, is less than ideal.
FAMILY MEALS AND HIGH-RISK ADOLESCENT BEHAVIORS
The issue of risky behaviors is global. In all societies and cultures, kids face huge behavioral and emotional risks with potentially severe health consequences. Parents are in almost universal agreement: they want to keep their kids away from these dangers. Family meals can assist them in this area, too.
More than 50 percent of teens who do not eat dinner with their parents have sex by the age of 15 to 16. This rate decreased to 32 percent when there were family meals in the home. Teens who have meals with their families are also less likely to have suicidal thoughts or make suicidal attempts, and they are less likely to be suspended from school.8 The issue of teen suicide is particularly important in areas where it is problematic, such as Australia and New Zealand.
Research has reported that family meals are associated with fewer instances of substance abuse. One study reported that the frequency of family meals was associated with less substance use along with less theft and reduced interest in gang membership.9 Another study with similar findings reported that family meals were associated with a lower likelihood of tobacco and alcohol use.10 Parents should be encouraged by these findings because they point out that there are indeed things they can do to protect kids from risk.
We can all benefit from learning how to talk to our kids, especially at mealtime. “This year’s CASA study [from Columbia University] demonstrates that the magic that happens at family dinners isn’t because of the food on the table; it’s because of the conversations around it. Family dinners relate to family bonding, which relates to significantly higher rates of pro-social behavior and lower rates of all types of risk behavior.”11
FAITH AT THE TABLE
From an early age, children begin to form their image of God from their experiences and relationships with parents and other significant adults in their lives. They observe and are affected by how these adults live out their relationship with God. Marjorie Thompson says that “the way we relate to each other is the most important spiritual discipline in the life of a family.”11 Research by the Search Institute confirms that the most significant religious influence on children is not what happens at church but what happens at home.12
Eating together provides a time for bonding, discussion, and faith talk. Deuteronomy 6 says that if we want to share our faith, we will be more intentional and deliberate about creating rhythms in our homes and talking about our faith. The simple event of sitting at home having a meal together becomes an important opportunity for beliefs and values to be both developed and practiced.
EAT WITH YOUR KIDS!
Improving health, getting better grades, reducing the chances of failure through risky behaviors, building faith—it is clear that the simple act of eating with your children will make a difference in their lives. Here is a list of practical suggestions for making family mealtime important and effective:
- Aim to have at least 5-6 meals a week as a family.
- Make mealtime extra-special. Meals are a wonderful opportunity to show your children how important they are. Try these ideas:
- Turn off distracting technology (cell phones, home phone).
- Remove computers, TVs, MP3 players, etc., from the vicinity of the dinner table.
- Keep conversations positive, pleasurable, and nonjudgmental.
- Discuss your children’s day and share yours.
- Ask questions that stimulate faith and beliefs. Encourage everyone to take part.
1 Shira Feldman, Marla E. Eisenberg, Diane Neumark-Sztainer, and Mary Story, “Associations between Watching TV during Family Meals and Dietary Intake Among Adolescents,” in Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 39, no. 5 (Sept/Oct. 2010): 257-263.
2 Jayne A. Fulkerson, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Peter J. Hannan, and Mary Story, “Family Meal Frequency and Weight Status Among Adolescents: Cross-Sectional and 5-Year Longitudinal Associations,” in Obesity, 16, no. 11 (August 2008): 2529.
3 Kerri N. Boutelle, Jayne A. Fulkerson, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Mary Story, and Simone A French, “Fast Food for Family Meals: Relationships with Parent and Adolescent Food Intake, Home Food Availability and Weight Status,” in Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 35, no. 1 (January 2007): 24-29.
4 Jayne A. Fulkerson, Martha Y. Kubik, Mary Story, Leslie Lytle, and Chrisa Arcan, “Are There Nutritional and Other Benefits Associated with Family Meals Among At-Risk Youth?” in Journal of Adolescent Health, 45, no. 4 (October 2009): 389-395.
5 Marla E. Eisenberg, Rachel E. Olson, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Mary Story, and Linda H. Bearinger, “Correlations Between Family Meals and Psychosocial Well-Being Among Adolescents,” in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 158, no. 8 (August 2004): 792-796.
6 Council of Economic Advisors, “Teens and Their Parents in the 21st Century: An Examination of the Trends in Teen Behavior and the Role of Parental Involvement, 2000.” Accessed 18 November 2010: available from http://clinton3.nara.gov/WH/EOP/CEA/html/Teens_Paper_Final.pdf. Internet.
7. Barbara J. Mayfield, “Family Meals Fact Sheet.” Accessed 18 November 2010: available from http://www.arlingtonva. us/Departments/HumanServices/PublicHealth/SchoolHealth/file65896.pdf.
8 Bisakha Sen, “The Relationship between Frequency of Family Dinner and Adolescent Problem Behaviors after Adjusting for Other Family Characteristics,” in Journal of Adolescence, 33, no. 1 (February 2010): 187-196.
9 James White and Emma Halliwell, “Alcohol and Tobacco Use During Adolescence: The Importance of the Family Mealtime Environment,” in Journal of Health Psychology, 15, no. 4, (May 2010): 526-532.
10 CASA: The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, “The Importance of Family Dinners IV.” 22 September 2010. Accessed 18 November 2010: available from http://www.casacolumbia.org/ templates/PressReleases.aspx?articleid=606&zoneid=79. Internet.
11 Thompson, Family: The Forming Centre, 59.
12 Search Institute, Effective Christian Education: A National Study of Protestant Congregations. 1990.