The eye-opening reason children benefit from sitting down for family dinners
We are just days away from back to school time, and a return to more normal routines for so many of us.
Gone are the carefree, slow days of summer, and in its place we'll once more have afternoons filled with homework, soccer practice, hockey training, ballet rehearsals, playdates, PTA meetings and housework to catch up on.
It is no wonder so many families find it hard to make time to sit down together for dinner in the evenings.
But, did you know – according to science – eating together as a family is something we should all try harder to do.
Why? What is the big deal, some might say? Is it not more important that we all get to eat, regardless of whether or not we do it at the same time, at the same table?
Well no. Because according to research, when it comes to raising happy, healthy, well-turned-out children, prioritising frequent family meals is important.
The good news is that is apparently doesn't matter if it is breakfast or brunch or dinner, as long as we actually commit to doing it on the regular.
Even better? It matters even less what we eat, whether the meal in question is organic grain bowls or ketchup-drenched, defrosted, dinosaur-shaped nuggets, what is important here is that we sit together with our children, around the table and consume some food.
Here is why we should all be prioritising eating together as a family:
1. Children do better in school and have a better academic performance
According to a large-scale study by researchers at Harvard, eating together is good for children's learning and vocabulary.
"We found that for young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read aloud to...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.”
This, apparently, gets even more important as our children get a little older. “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.”
2. Children are at lower risk of substance abuse later in life
More important than eating, when we sit around the table with our family, we talk. And this communication is vital is future-proofing our children against a lot of different things, such as for instance depression. And substance abuse.
According to Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, “Compared to teens who have frequent family dinners (5 to 7 per week), those who have infrequent family dinners (fewer than 3 per week) are more than twice as likely to say that they expect to try drugs in the future.”
Research found that teens who seldom eat with their parents are almost twice as likely to have used alcohol, and 1.5 times likelier to have used marijuana. “The magic that happens over family dinners isn’t the food on the table, but the communication and conversations around it,” explains the centre’s marketing director Kathleen Ferrigno. “Of course there is no iron-clad guarantee that your kids will grow up drug-free, but knowledge is power, and the more you know, the better the odds are that you will raise a healthy kid.”
3. It lowers the risk of both obesity and eating disorders
Ever hear the expression "monkey see, monkey do?" It's true – words will only get you so far, to really raise good children, as parents, we need to model the behaviour we want to see in them – and start doing this early. Family dinners are great for this, and provide ample opportunities to model—and regulate —healthy eating habits.
According to a study led by eating disorder expert Dr Jess Haines, “Compared to those who ate family dinner ‘never or some days,’ female adolescents who ate family dinner at least most days were less likely to initiate purging, binge eating, and frequent dieting.”
In another (unrelated) study conducted by the University of Minnesota, researchers found Americans (parents and kids) are significantly less overweight if they share family meals more frequently, and have fewer distractions at the table (like tech). Kids who eat dinner with their families often also eat healthier (more fruits and vegetables; less soda and fried foods), according to a study by Harvard Medical School’s Obesity Prevention Program.
4. It increases children's and teens' self-esteem and resilience
According to psychology researchers at Emory University, children who have frequent family dinners “know more about their family history and tend to have higher self-esteem, interact better with their peers and show higher resilience in the face of adversity.”
In a busy household, the dinner table is often where stories are told and where we really get a chance to sit down and chat about our days, and according to Marshall Duke, a co-director of the study, which analyzed 120 hours of recorded family dinner conversations, "As the family talks about things, I think they are teaching the kids about assessment, about appraisal. How bad is this? How good is this? Resilience is nurtured when the child understands that negative events don't define the family history.”