Dinner Table Rewards

Magic Wand

If I could offer you a “Magic Wand”  to wave over your children that would offer these results, would you take it and use it?

* Less likely to have eating disorders
* Lower risk of smoking, drinking and using marijuana
* Lower incidence of depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts
* Better grades
* Less likely to have sexually active friends

The “Magic Wand”?

Family Dinners.


Studies confirm that adolescents whose families provide meal frequency as well as a positive mealtime atmosphere are more likely to have healthy eating patterns and less likely to have eating disorders (see “Benefits of the Dinner Table Ritual” New York Times, May 3, 2005).

  • A  2004 study of 4,746 children 11-18 years old found that frequent family meals were associated with a lower risk of smoking, drinking and using marijuana; with a lower incidence of depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts; and with better grades.
  • A  survey of 12- to 17-year-olds found that teenagers who reported eating two or fewer dinners a week with family members were more than one and a half times as likely to smoke, drink or use illegal substances than were teenagers who had five to seven family dinners.
  • “We also noticed that the more often teens had dinner with their parents, the less likely they were to have sexually active friends, less likely girls were to have boyfriends two years older, and the less teens spent with  boyfriends or girlfriends.”
  • A study found that adolescent girls who reported having more frequent family meals and a positive atmosphere during those meals were less likely to have eating disorders.

Impressive results.

I’ve yet to find research that strongly indicates the when families habitually “graze” in the kitchen, or go foraging nightly for fast food, they have the same results as families who eat together on a regular basis. In fact, it’s often the opposite and regularly eating fast food increases the chances of childhood obesity among other risk factors. Too many families have given up on the tradition of preparing, eating, and cleaning up meals together.

No time, they say.

I absolutely understand that many families have very busy lives and finding time (not to mention, energy) for food preparation is difficult. The purpose of this parenting article is not to debate that or to address how to work a daily home-cooked meal into an overwhelmingly busy schedule. I just want remind ourselves that our short-ranged behaviors and priorities can have serious consequences in the long run. Those who are determined to make improvements will do so.

Small changes can have monumental results. Consider these:

Do you find that you rarely sit down together to eat? Perhaps make it possible to eat once or twice a week together.

Do you find that dinnertime is impossible to bring everyone together? Perhaps plan for breakfasts to offer the benefits of the “dinner table” ritual instead.

Do you find that you only eat together once or twice a week? Perhaps you can increase it to three or four.

Yes, it’s preferable that the meals are home cooked and that vegetables, whole grains and fruits prevail over other non-essential foods. But I’m more concerned with the quality of interaction at that time of day than the food itself if I have to make a choice. Making pancakes and sausage can be a great option, especially for picky eaters and parents who are intimidated by making “gourmet” meals like Chicken Salad Sandwiches (which I am making tonight; only 10 minute prep!). You can add the healthy stuff later as your confidence grows.

Those research study outcomes happened when the kids knew they were needed at home and welcomed at the table. Children will not want to sit down if their chair becomes an instrument of interrogation and torture as they are continually criticized while passing the salt. Parents who do family meals right create a warm, friendly environment as they look each other in the eye across the table, ask questions, listen and laugh together.  That means…

Turn off the TV.

Turn off the cell phones and other electronic devices.

Turn on your parenting power to influence your kids for a lifetime of good. It’s magic.

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