When parents get their children to sit around the dinner table, they can congratulate themselves for providing a meal that is likely more nutritious than what their child would have eaten outside the house. But surprisingly, it turns out that parents are also providing their child with much more than healthy food.
Recent evidence shows that the more kids join the family at the dinner table, the less likely they are to smoke cigarettes or marijuana, drink alcohol, perform poorly at school, have low self-esteem, or develop an eating disorder.
"Three to four times a week is a good thing to shoot for, but one family meal is better than none," says Dr. Jayne Fulkerson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Minneapolis. Dr. Fulkerson understands that given today's lifestyles, getting the family around the table for a meal is not easy, but "I tell parents to start with what's manageable in terms of scheduling and try to make it a routine."
From eating to eating disorders, from mental health to behaviour
Dr. Fulkerson has been studying family meals for several years, sometimes in collaboration with the University of Minneapolis' Project Eat, research that examines the longer-range impact that family meals have on children.
"When I started, it was mostly about dietary data, but also about mental health and psychological wellbeing," explains Dr. Fulkerson. Given the rise of eating disorders, the connection between eating and psychological wellbeing is important. "This is what got us thinking: better nutrition, yes. But what else?"
Over time, Dr. Fulkerson and other researchers, notably at Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, made associations between family meals and what psychologists call "developmental assets." Developmental assets are the internal attributes and the external forces that shape a child as he or she grows. Internal developmental assets include positive identity, high self-esteem, and social competency. External developmental assets include family support and expectations of child behaviour, and community.
What this means in real terms is that teen girls who eat five or more meals per week at home with the family are significantly less likely to be bulimic or anorexic. Additionally, teen boys and girls who ate more frequently with the family were less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, be sexually active, be suicidal or depressed, participate in antisocial behaviour, or have problems at school. Other studies have shown that children's literacy improves with the number of meals they usually eat with the family.
While Dr. Fulkerson is sure the data show a relationship between frequency of family meals and developmental assets, at this point, understanding why this is true is a more speculative endeavour.
"If your kids are expected at home for dinner, they are not in places where they can get into trouble," she muses, adding "the expectation that children are at home for routine family events makes them feel important and that the parents are interested in their lives."
Dr. Fulkerson also believes that eating together is a cultural and social event that allows and promotes sharing. "At mealtime, you share food but also thoughts and opinion. It's a good forum for that. These days there are fewer and fewer rituals like this. Because parents often work more and kids have more extracurricular activities such as organized sports, the tradition of the family meal is not as alive as we would like it to be."
Expectation of engagement
Another quality of family meals is that they are somewhat captivating in the literal sense: all participants in the meal have an expectation that they will remain sitting at the table for a certain period of time, engaged in the dinner ritual. At the doctor's office people tend to read the magazines - even if they are months old - because there is little else to do. "Dinner has the same quality," says Fulkerson, "except that conversation, rather than reading, is the default activity."
For younger children, dinner-time conversation is an opportunity to learn new words and knowledge. But perhaps more profoundly, it is also a time to develop communication skills.
While some of these lessons may still apply as a child reaches adolescence, around the dinner table teens are also likely sharing their lives with their parents, creating a better understanding between individuals.
"On the one hand, if teens are at home for dinner, they are less likely to be out smoking or drinking and getting in trouble," says Fulkerson. "But at the same time, around the table, parents are more likely to be able to spot a problem if there is one."
Beyond enhanced nutrition, family dinner provides a positive cultural, social, and relational experience that acts as a protective factor against many of the dysfunctional behaviours that can negatively influence youth mental health and development. These very issues are often those that worry parents most. To imagine that a pleasurable, everyday activity can have such powerful and wide-ranging preventative effect should be not only reassuring for parents, but act as a powerful incentive to ensure the institution of family dinner is protected in every home.