Making the Case for the Family Dinner

Family-building meals are worth the time and effort

“My kids are starving when they get home from soccer and baseball practice, so instead of eating dinner, they just grab whatever’s in the fridge.”

“I usually get home from work so late that the kids have already eaten dinner.”

“Sometimes I’m so tired that it’s too much fuss to set the table and prepare a big meal.”

Sound familiar? If you’re like most American moms, chances are you don’t get around to cooking and eating with your family every night. But studies show that eating together can have a beneficial impact on your kids’ lives. According to How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid, a book by Joseph A. Califano Jr. (StraightDopeForParents.org), eating meals as a family five to seven times a week is associated with lower rates of teen smoking, drinking and illegal drug use.

     “When parents have dinner with their children, they definitely see benefits,” says Elizabeth Planet, vice president and director of special projects at the National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. “It sends the message that they care about their kids.” Despite competition from sports and other after-school activities, the numbers are encouraging. In a September 2009 survey, CASA found that 59 percent of teens and 62 percent of parents reported having dinner with their families at least five times a week. “We’d like to see even more families making a shared dinner a priority,” says Planet. “But whatever they do to spend more time together is positive.”

     Even better news? Sharing family meals can be good for you as well. “When parents slow down and eat with their kids, their lives become more balanced,” says New York City-based psychologist Dale Atkins, who specializes in family therapy. “For multitasking mothers in particular, research shows that if they’re able to sit down and enjoy a meal with their family rather than racing all over the place or being stuck in the kitchen, they feel more satisfied.”

     More food for thought: Everyone ends up eating better, too. A meal made at home is more likely to be lower in fat and higher in nutrition than one grabbed on the go—and cooking at home is almost always easier on the budget. “An unexpected by-product of the recession is that people are more conscious of what they’re spending, and it’s cheaper to eat at home,” says Atkins. “And because you can better control meal portions at home than in restaurants, you can keep an eye on how much you and your family eat.” But let’s get real: If having dinner with your family five or more nights a week just isn’t an option, start with one night, then two, and go from there.

Read on for four more surprising rewards of sharing meals with those you love.

Connecting and Nurturing

This is the most important reason to gather round the table by far, even for little kids, according to Connecticut mom and journalist Susan Pocharski. “My husband and I both work, and our kids—who are 13 months, 2 years and 4 years—look forward to dinner with us all day long¸” she says. “I think it’s because they know we’ll all be together. It gives them structure and routine, yes, but also the feeling of family.” Atkins concurs: “With patients, one of the first questions I ask is, ‘How often do you have a meal together?’ It doesn’t matter if dinner is pizza or mac ’n cheese. Eating together is all about getting a pulse, making a connection.”

Learning the Art of Conversation…

…Not to mention listening, self-restraint, being considerate and taking turns. “We have a Friday night tradition where we go around the table and talk about our week,” says Lynn Kestin Sessler, a New Jersey mother of three daughters and television and Web producer. “And it doesn’t have to be sugar-coated. They’ll say anything from, ‘I got an A-minus on my social studies test,’ to ‘A friend of mine got upset at lunch and I tried to make her feel better.’” Jill Kimball, a Florida mother of four and author of Drawing Families Together, One Meal at a Time (FamilyTableTime.com), found another way to spark conversation around the table. “My husband and I started having our kids pay compliments to one another for something that happened during the past week. They took a little time to understand the idea—I remember when Jimmy was 5, he said to his brother, Kyle, who was 6, ‘When you hit me last week, it wasn’t as hard as before.’ But eventually they got the hang of it!” Don’t forget that at the dinner table it’s crucial to banish the TV and the BlackBerry—and turn off the cell phone and the pager while you’re at it. Remember that kids learn best by example: Give them your genuine, undivided attention, and look them in the eye while they’re talking. They’ll know you’re listening, and they’ll return the favor.

Bringing Up Foodies

“No mom wants to feel like she’s running a cafeteria,” says Atkins. “Unless someone has an allergy, you should limit the number of choices for dinner. Say, ‘Tonight is pasta, and tomorrow we’ll have pizza. And if you want something else, you’ve got to eat one green vegetable, one grain, and so on.’” By following a set menu, you’ll encourage your kids to try everything at least once over time, rather than turn up their noses at something they think they don’t like. Gayle Muscatel, a teacher in Los Angeles and mother of a 12- and a 13-year-old, learned the hard way: “I used to make different meals for everybody, but not anymore. My kids are old enough that I can tell them, ‘If you don’t like it, find something else that’s healthy.’ And it’s never a problem.”

Prepping for Future Success

Having kids help you make dinner teaches them how to become self-sufficient, regardless of age. Young kids can tear lettuce and learn how to set the table. Older kids can pour juice and peel veggies, and teens can chop and dice. Cooking—and cleanup—also teaches teamwork and organizational skills. Plus, it makes kids feel worthy. Sessler reports that her 6-year-old, Naomi, is a budding sous chef: “She likes to pour chocolate chips into the cookie batter or crack the eggs for brownies. It gives her a sense of pride to be part of what she sees as the very grown-up process of cooking.”

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