Family mealtime promotes more than healthier eating

By Sarah Glenn 

For the Journal

Obesity, depression and eating disorders all have one thing in common, according to research from Cornell University: They can each be curbed by family dinnertime.

The old-fashioned tradition of a conversation-filled family dinner can be challenging for even the most dedicated families. In a frenetic dance many evenings jump from music lessons to school sports to homework, skipping a sit-down meal entirely. Entire organizations and industries have been built on the idea that families need (and will pay for) help creating quality family dinnertime.

The Family Dinner Project, in association with Harvard University, has built a national coalition of research and advocacy around the topic. Ore-Ida Potato Company is building its brand with a new advertising campaign filled with tools to enhance quality family dinnertime. And Boys Town, an advocacy group for struggling youth, is jumping into the conversation with its own campaign.

“Parents should start the routine early so they can start a communication pattern that will continue through the more difficult teenage years,” said Boys Town psychologist Dr. Tom Reimers in a written statement. “A lot of times when kids get older they won’t talk, but parents really haven’t spent time throughout the child’s lifetime talking with them on a regular basis.”

Ore-Ida is aiming to help inspire bolder conversations through starter questions found on a new FindYourBOLD Pinterest board. Boys Town commissioned a study on the benefits of family mealtime and advocated for its members to dedicate Tuesday to a sit-down dinner.

These groups hold up recent research to support their crusades.

The Boys Town poll results show that less than half (46 percent) of Americans are eating family meals together at least once a day, yet 93 percent know eating regular family meals together is important.

The importance of mealtime can lead to better physical and mental health outcomes.

According to the Cornell research, a child may be 35 percent less likely to engage in disordered eating, 24 percent more likely to eat healthier foods and 12 percent less likely to be overweight if they eat dinner with their entire family more than three times per week. The study also found a decrease in depressive behaviors when family mealtime was a regular occurrence.

Other studies have found similar benefits. Compared to teens who have five to seven family dinners per week, those who have fewer than three family dinners per week are twice as likely to say they expect to try drugs (including marijuana and prescription drugs without a prescription to get high) in the future, according to a September 2012 white paper by the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

“Our past surveys have consistently found a relationship between children having frequent dinners with their parents and a decreased risk of their using drugs, drinking or smoking and that parental engagement fostered around the dinner table is one of the most potent tools to help parents raise healthy, drug-free children,” the introduction to the paper states.

However, all of these researchers say that there is one basic principle that supports all of their data: Families that make quality time a priority raise productive and healthy children.

“Research suggests most of the linkage between family meals and youth outcomes is actually due to characteristics that differentiate families that engage in family meals from those who do not,” the Cornell paper says.

So in the end the research shows that families are better when they spend time together.

Sidebar: The Boys Town campaign offers these tips to make dinnertime quality time:

* As a family discuss priorities and make family meals one of them. Create a large color-coded family calendar that includes a scheduled mealtime between band practice and soccer, for instance.

* Make the most of the 10 minutes you do have for dinner by asking poignant questions that trigger conversations instead of one-word answers.

* Create a family rule that cell phones, tablets and the television must be turned off and cannot be brought to the dinner table.

* Get kids engaged through meal participation. Kids are more likely to be excited to sit down for a meal they helped create. Allow them to help at the grocery store, create the menu or stir ingredients.

* Find a different time if supper won’t fit in the schedule. Have a snack together before bedtime or eat breakfast together in the morning and take a few minutes to talk without any distractions.

For conversation starters, families can find the #FindYourBOLD Pinterest board or visit http://thefamilydinnerproject.org.

Ore-Ida FindYourBOLD Infographic

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