Whatever Happened to Dinner?

Benefits of Eating Together

[Whatever Happened to Dinner?]

The publication of Whatever Happened to Dinner? by Melodie Davis is a good time to reflect on the many good reasons why families should eat together—children are less likely to use drugs, do better in school, develop good reading and language skills, avoid eating disorders, be healthier and have better relationships with their parents. Not to mention eating better!

Below find information about the benefits of eating regular meals together, along with links to studies for more information.

Less likely to use drugs Fewer Eating Disorders
Better relationship with parents Better Overall Health & Eating Habits
Better Grades for Teens Links to Other Resources
Better Language Skills Canadian Resources

Want to strengthen your family mealtime? Check out Whatever Happened to Dinner?

Less likely to use drugs.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University has surveyed thousands of American teens and their parents to identify factors that increase or decrease the likelihood of teen substance abuse. Its surveys have consistently found that the more often children have dinners with their parents, the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use drugs, and that parental engagement fostered around the dinner table is one of the most potent tools to help parents raise healthy, drug-free children.

Simply put: frequent family dinners make a difference.

Compared to teens who have frequent family dinners (five to seven per week), those who have infrequent family dinners (fewer than three per week) are:

  1. Twice as likely to use tobacco;
  2. Nearly twice as likely to use alcohol; and
  3. One and a-half times likelier to use marijuana.

There is also a connection between the frequency of family dinners and a teen's access to drugs. Compared to teens who have frequent family dinners, those who have infrequent family dinners are twice as likely to say they can get marijuana or prescription drugs (to get high) in an hour or less.

"There are no silver bullets—unfortunately, the tragedy of a child's substance abuse can strike any family; but one factor that does more to reduce teens' substance abuse risk than almost any other is parental engagement, and one of the simplest and most effective ways for parents to be engaged in their teens' lives is by having frequent family dinners," says Joseph A. Califano, Jr., CASA's chairman and president and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.

"If I could wave a magic wand to make a dent in the substance abuse problem, I would make sure that every child in America had dinner with his or her parents at least five times a week," he says. "There is no more important thing a parent can do."

» Statement by CASA Chairman Joseph A. Califano, Jr. on The Importance of Family Dinners
» Casa And TV Land/Nick At Nite Report Shows Frequent Family Dinners Cut Teens' Substance Abuse Risk In Half


Better relationship with parents.

Family dinner is an ideal opportunity to strengthen family ties, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. Teens who have frequent family dinners are almost three times as likely to say they have an excellent relationship with their mother and three times likelier to say they have an excellent relationship with their father; they are also more than twice as likely to report that their parents are very good at listening to them.

Teens themselves understand the value of family dinners: nearly three-quarters of teens think that eating dinner together with their parents is important. Most teens (60 percent) who have dinner with their parents fewer than five nights a week wish they could eat dinner with their parents more often. Compared to teens who don't talk to their parents about what's going on in their lives at dinner, those who do are more likely to think frequent family dinners are important and to want to have them more often.

Topics that most teens say they discuss at the family table include: school and sports (86 percent), friends and social activities (76 percent) current events (63 percent) and family issues or problems (58 percent). Topics that most teens wish they could honestly discuss with their parents during mealtime include: religious matters (51 percent) and curfews (51 percent). A substantial number of teens would also like to talk with their parents about peer pressure (44 percent), dating (42 percent) and substance abuse (38 percent).

Nearly 70 percent of teens who eat dinner with their parents five to seven times a week say that their parents are very proud of them, compared to 48 percent of teens who have family dinners two times a week or less.

Teens who have frequent family dinners are likelier than those who have infrequent family dinners to say they would turn to one or both of their parents if they had a serious problem. Teens who can confide in their parents are at much lower risk for substance abuse than teens who would confide in another adult or who have no adult in whom to confide.

Three in four teens report that they talk to their parents about what's going on in their lives during dinner; and eight in 10 parents agree that by having family dinner they learn more about what's going on in their teens' lives.

» The Importance of Family Dinners VI, National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.


Better Grades for Teens

Teenagers who eat with their families at least five times a week are more likely to get better grades in school, according to a 2005 Columbia University study. The survey found that frequent family dinners are associated with better school performance, with teens 40 percent more likely to get A's and B's.

» The Importance of Family Dinners VI, National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
» Help Your Child Succeed in School with Healthy Meals


Better Language Skills

When researchers from Harvard University wanted to figure out why some kids learned to read early while others lagged behind, they decided to look at family routines. The researchers recorded mealtimes, but they also looked at other things: how often parents read to their children, played with their children. They expected that the data on book reading would be most powerful, because so much research has focused on book reading. But the research found something very different. "What we found was that our data on the quality of conversations in mealtimes was a much stronger predictor of how later development would go for children's language and literacy development," says David Dickinson, professor of education at Vanderbilt University.

And why was that? It turned out the content of dinner was important. That is, kids who did well didn't just eat dinner with families—they ate dinner with families that talked together. "Dinner provided an opportunity for children to be exposed to these language behaviors on a regular basis," says Dickinson, noting that dinner in a limited verbal environment apparently didn't have the same benefits.

The Home-School Study of Language and Literacy Development, a joint project between Harvard's Graduate School of Education and Clark University, found that the discussions that take place at the dinner table are important to children's speech development. Lively discussions of current events or explanations make a bigger contribution to children's vocabularies than just saying "Pass the peas."

» Using 'Rare' Words At Mealtimes Can Enlarge Children's Vocabulary
» Mealtime Talk That Supports Literacy Development


Fewer Eating Disorders

Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a professor at the University of Minnesota, studies the relationship between dinner and eating disorders. Her research has shown that girls who ate with their family most days of the week were 29% less likely to engage in purging or to use diet pills and diuretics five years later, even after adjusting for confounding factors.

Binge eating and other disordered eating behaviors also tended to be less common for those accustomed to eating meals with their family.

The findings add to a growing body of literature suggesting family meals play an important role in the health and well-being of adolescent girls.

» Family Mealtime Reduces Eating Disorders in Teens


Better Overall Health & Eating Habits

Children who regularly sit down to family meals and get plenty of vegetables in their diet tend to be thinner than their peers without such eating habits, a study published in the March 2010 Journal of Pediatrics found.

After interviewing 1,138 children, ages 9 to 13, researchers found that children who regularly sat down to family dinners and had traditional cooked meals for lunch or dinner, rather than sandwiches, snack foods or breakfast-like meals, had a lower body mass index, smaller waistlines and less body fat than their peers who did not fit the diet pattern.

Eating together as a family during adolescence is associated with lasting positive effects on dietary quality in young adulthood, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota.

Researchers found eating family meals together during adolescence resulted in adults who ate more fruit, dark-green and orange vegetables and key nutrients, and drank fewer soft drinks. Frequency of family meals predicted females would eat breakfast as adults.

For both males and females, frequency of family meals as adolescents predicted eating dinner more frequently as adults, placing a higher priority on structured meals and a higher priority on social eating.

Earlier studies from the University of Minnesota, Harvard and Rutgers have found that middle-school students who regularly have meals with their parents eat more fruits, vegetables and calcium-rich foods, ingest more vitamins and nutrients and consume less junk food.

» Household Routines and Obesity in US Preschool-Aged Children
» Family Meals, Vegetables May Keep Kids Trim (July 8, 2010, Reuters)
» Family dinners have many benefits for kids (Aug. 3, 2010 Miami Herald)
» Eating Together As A Family Creates Better Eating Habits Later In Life
» Regular Family Meals Promote Healthy Eating Habits


Links to Other Resources

» Family Dinner Time Creates Lasting Benefits
» Selected Links To Resources On The Benefits Of Family Meals

Canadian Resources

» Benefits Of Families Eating Together Enormous
» Canadian Dinner trends
» Eat Right Ontario: Parent and Caregivers Influence on Children's Eating Habits
» Better Together: B.C. Dairy Foundation

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