All in the Family

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Make dinnertime family time

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Dr. Tonja Wynn Hampton

Aug. 17, 2001 -- Dinnertime at the Diamants': Erica, 14, stirs spaghetti sauce as her mother, Barbara, drops pasta into a pot of boiling water. Corey, 7, plays hide-and-seek while his dad, Rufus, catches the last bits of the nightly news.

At last the family sits down and the conversation picks up. Erica talks about meeting an Olympic athlete at school; between mouthfuls of pasta, Corey says he'd like to take up judo. Barbara, a graphic designer, and Rufus, a photographer, sidestep any talk of work. Instead, they gently guide the children into a discussion of judo, karate, and tai chi, quizzing Corey and Erica about the merits of each. The phone rings, and everybody ignores it.

It's clear what's happening at this dinner table in Oakland, Calif. Several studies, including one published in the March 2000 issue of the Archives of Family Medicine, indicate that children who eat dinner with their parents have a better diet than children who eat alone or away from home.

But something else is happening when the Diamants dine. Evidence also suggests that eating together could make Erica and Corey less likely to smoke, use drugs, or drink.

A report released last year by the President's Council of Economic Advisors, and based on a long-running study of more than 12,000 adolescents nationwide, said that teens who ate dinner with their parents five nights a week were far more likely to avoid smoking, drug use, alcohol, sex, and suicide than teens who eat alone.

Not long after that report was released, in fact only one week later, a nationwide poll of 200 12- to 15-year-olds and 200 parents showed the family dinner under fire. One in four parents reporting in the poll, which was commissioned by the YMCA, said they ate no more than four meals a week with their children. And Harvard researchers writing in the Archives of Family Medicine study noted that surveys since 1990 show that the family dinner has "waned over time."

Fast Food and Frustrating

The reasons behind the decline in family dinnertime seem obvious. Experts and parents alike blame the hectic pace of modern life, with longer workdays, longer commutes, soccer practices, and endlessly buzzing cell phones.

Rufus says there's "no question" that working at home as he does makes it easier to get dinner on the table. "I have a certain flexibility," he says. "But parents who don't [have that flexibility] find dinner is fast food and frustrating."

Difficult as it is to dish up, experts agree the family interaction that takes place at dinner is critical to a child's emotional, social, and psychological development.

Having a parent around at one or more critical times during the day -- waking, mealtimes, bedtime, after school -- can protect kids from bad choices by giving them a sense that they're loved and valued and that there's someone to turn to when life becomes difficult. "We know from studies that kids value and recognize the power and nurturing of family meals," says Michael Resnick, PhD, a professor of pediatrics and director of the National Teen Pregnancy Research Center at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

More than nutrition occurs when families break bread together, says Resnick. "[It's] a slowing down of the pace, a time for centering, and a time for checking in with each other."

Lessons Learned

Socially, the dinner table offers lessons in cooperation, in taking turns, and listening to different viewpoints, says Mark Goulston, MD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Such lessons may sound elementary, but they can also "enable you later in life to be part of a team, part of a board of directors, part of a company," Goulston says.

Psychologically, children use dinnertime as a chance to observe their favorite role models. How mom deals with a disappointment at work, or dad with an annoying colleague, can be an important lesson in problem solving, experts say.

"Kids really are very interested in our sibling relationships, and our relationships with our parents, and our friends, and people at work," says Peter Goldenthal, a pediatric and family psychologist in Wayne, Pa. "They're looking for psychological models for how adults conduct themselves."

By the same token, dysfunctional dinners where mom and dad do nothing but moan and complain deliver an equally potent message.

More Than Good Intentions

Still, getting more families to sit down together will take more than good intentions. Consider one innovative strategy tested by the Dallas YMCA. The organization launched a program that let parents pick up their groceries and dry cleaning at local Ys in exchange for a pledge to have more dinners together.

Ben Casey, chief executive of the Dallas Y, says that the one-stop shopping program gives parents a chance to regain "a [sacred] time when families can get together every day."

Meanwhile, the Diamants have their own plan. Rufus and Barbara take turns cooking every other night; Rufus handles most of the grocery shopping, while Barbara transports the kids to soccer and baseball practice, usually three times a week.

Most nights, it's 7 p.m. before everyone is home and ready to eat, and it's not uncommon for Barbara or Rufus to work after dinner to make up for the time they've spent at the table.

But it's worth it. "We try to present a balanced meal, but there is a social aspect," says Rufus. "I think a good meal expresses love for your family. I've always felt that."

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