The family that eats together: A gift that can promote your family’s health and keep your children on track
My teenager isn’t engaged in our family anymore. What can we do?”
“How can I protect my children from the risky behaviors all around them?”
“My daughter is struggling with school; how can we help her at home?”
“My son’s always on some sort of technology and tunes me out. What should I do?”
Have you ever had anyone ask you questions such as these? While we all know there is no cure-all for anything in life, there is something simple, inexpensive, and available to all—your family, parishioners, and community—a powerful tool to face such problems that relate to kids. Connect with your kids and help make them healthier, improve their test scores, and reduce the chance of risky behaviors by using this simple tip: eat family meals together!
Family meals, distractions, and better eating habits
A research study conducted on adolescents found that 11.8 percent skipped meals to watch television, 10.5 percent skipped meals to play computer games, and 8.2 percent skipped meals to read books.1 Another study reported that 34.5 percent of boys and 30.9 percent of girls watched television during family meals, and kids who watch television during meals tend to eat less of vegetables (specifically dark green/yellow vegetables), calcium-rich foods, and grains, but consume a larger amount of soft drinks compared to adolescents not watching television during meals. The studies concluded that family meals during adolescence may have a lasting positive influence on dietary quality and meal patterns in young adulthood.2
Look at your dinner table. What is on it? Newspapers? Bills? Books? What is near the table? The TV? A computer? A cell phone? An MP3 player? Put away distractions. Turn off your cell phones and TV. Focus on your kids. It’s free and effective in creating healthier kids.
Family meals and combating obesity
A report from the University of Wyoming issues this startling statement: “Current national figures indicate one third of adult Americans and one quarter of children and adolescents are overweight. The heaviest people in our society are now heavier than ever. Children born in the United States today have a 50 percent chance of becoming overweight sometime in their lifetime.”3 Data from the Centers for Disease Control document that during 1976–1980, 6.5 percent of 6–11-year-olds were obese. In 2007–2008 this had increased to almost 20 percent.4 There is no doubt that parents play a critical role in the development of children’s eating habits as they are responsible for deciding what foods are in the home. “The family meal setting has the potential to substantially impact the dietary intake of children and may provide an important avenue for obesity prevention. However, opportunities for families to have meals together have been negatively affected by changes in society, and data suggests that the frequency of family meals may be declining.”5
Another factor that affects the traditional family dinner table is the increased stress on time availability. Extracurricular activities for the children and extra jobs or odd working hours for parents often lead to dependence on fast food. Research shows that homes where fast food replaces traditional meals at least three times a week are likely to have more chips and soda available, and both of these are associated with obesity among adolescents.6
In a study of kids at risk for academic failure (all of these students were enrolled in alternative schools), students who reported never eating family meals were more likely to eat fewer fruits and less breakfasts and to be more depressed and overweight.7
Indeed, more and more scientific data is available to corroborate that family meals are associated with more healthful meals and therefore less obesity.
Emotional health and academic test scores
With the frenetic pace of life today, what can we do to ensure our kids have the best chance at academic success? Can eating meals together help in this area too?
A program called Project EAT explored the association between the frequency of family meals and the psychosocial well-being of adolescent boys and girls.8 The research showed the frequency of family meals was associated with higher academic performance. Similarly, another study found that teens who eat with their families are more likely to have higher grades in school and are more likely to go to college.9
Barbara Mayfield of Purdue University states that “a Reader’s Digest survey of more than 2,000 high-school seniors compared academic achievement with family characteristics. Eating meals with their family was a stronger predictor of academic success than whether they lived with one or both parents.” According to Mayfield, “Research by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), and others, has found a striking relationship between frequency of family meals and grades. In 2003, the percent of teens who got A’s was 20 percent of those who ate with their families five or more times per week compared to only 12 percent of those who ate with their families two or less times per week.”10
Reduce risky behaviors
Eating together as a family is not only likely to increase academic performance, it also tends to decrease risky behaviors, from early sexual activity to drug use. Concerned and engaged parents want to keep their kids away from these dangers, and family meals can assist them in this area. One study showed that among teens who have sex by age 15 or 16, over 50 percent come from homes that do not have the habit of eating dinner as a family. This rate decreased to 32 percent when there were family meals in the home. Teens who have meals with their families are also less likely to have suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide, and are less likely to ever be suspended from school.11
Research also shows that families who eat together face fewer problems of their children having problems with substance use. One such study reported that the frequency of family meals predicted less substance use along with less stealing and engaging in gang membership. 12 In another study with similar findings, it was reported that family meals were associated with a lower likelihood of the use of tobacco and alcohol.13 The sixth annual family dinner survey conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) found that those youth who had dinner five times or more per week with their families were only half as likely to use tobacco and alcohol and about a third less likely to use marijuana than those who ate dinner with their family only twice a week or less.14
From the Council on Economic Advisors, we learn that throughout the teenage years, teens who eat dinner with a parent regularly or feel close to their mother and/or father have lower rates of smoking. That pattern held true even for the same kids who did not have a close relationship with a parent. They also reported that family meals were related to less marijuana use.15
What is it that happens at a family dinner to account for these dramatic results? A recent CASA report puts it succinctly: “The magic that happens at family dinners isn’t the food on the table, but the conversations around it. Family dinners relate to family bonding which relates to significantly higher rates of pro-social behavior and lower rates of all types of risky behavior.”16
Family dinners and genetics
Genetic codes are written long before anyone eats a single meal, so why would family meals be important in this area? We all have “genetic markers” that give researchers clues as to who we are and what we are capable of doing. For example, you might be genetically predisposed to be a runner (i.e. you might have a “genetic marker” that is shared by runners), but if you never take up the sport, you will not display the end result of becoming a marathoner or sprinter. In other words, your genetic predisposition to running will never be expressed. While this concept may seem complicated, it helps us understand why the benefits of family meals have something to do with genetics.
The relationship between genetics and behavior is complex. Recent data17 suggests that family dinners may play a role in the prevention of genetic expression for aggression. A landmark study focusing on molecular genetic variants associated with serious violent delinquency, found that youth who did not have frequent family dinners and had the genetic markers for aggression, had high rates of acts of violent delinquency. However, those youth who had dinner with their family six or more times per week and who also had these same genetic markers for aggression, did not engage in violent delinquent behaviors. Although this is one of the first studies to examine the interaction between family dinners and genetic expression, it does suggest that while genetic propensities may not mean inevitable violent behavior, behavior can be modified by something as simple as family dinners!
Give your kids a head start—eat with them
From improving health to getting better grades to reducing the chances of failure through risky behavior, it is clear that the simple act of eating with your children will make a difference in their lives. As pastors, you have many opportunities to communicate this important information to your parishioners or community members. Share this concept with engaged couples, newlyweds, people seeking marriage or family counseling, new parents, community groups, and others. Here is a list of practical suggestions for making family mealtimes important and effective:
• Plan on having at least five or six meals a week as a family, allowing a good hour for the meal, conversation, and clean-up time (ideally, making all of the above a joint family activity).
• Make mealtime extra special. Meals (at home or elsewhere) become a wonderful opportunity to show your children how important they are. Give them your undivided attention: Turn off cell phones (yes, both parents and children). Turn off the television. Turn off the computers, radio, MP3 devices, etc. (Replace the “personal” distraction with some soft background music all can enjoy together.)
• Follow general mealtime etiquette: keep conversations positive, pleasurable, and nonjudgmental. Avoid conversations that bring up disciplinary, controversial, or depressing issues. Instead, discuss your children’s day and share yours. Encourage everyone to take part in talking and listening.
• Consider taking an extra step by changing your answering machine message to say, “We don’t answer our phone during family meals, but we will be happy to call you back as soon as possible.”
• Design a conversational expectation at meal times. Suggestions include the following:
»» Asking a child or teenager to share something of interest that happened during the day.
»» Discuss a news item of the day and evaluate its moral or social implications.
»» Discuss a scientific question pertinent to a teenager’s interests or life experience (astronomy, physics, physiology, sociology). This may take some homework.
»» Discuss a challenge to spiritual or moral principles encountered by a student at school.
»» Plan a family vacation, or just a family day trip.
Everyone desires to raise children who are healthy and fit rather than sickly and obese, intelligent and successful rather than senseless and indolent, and protected and secure rather than exposed and engaging in risky behavior. These children can be free to pursue an abundant life—a life that submits itself to the One with whom we plan to share many “family meals” throughout eternity. You can encourage steps in this direction by passing along these simple tips to your parishioners and community, and modeling them in your own home as well. You have nothing to lose and many things to gain. Let’s get started!
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1 Kathleen Custers and Jan Van den Bulck, “Television Viewing, Computer Game Play and Book Reading During Meals Are Predictors of Meal Skipping in a Cross-Sectional Sample of 12-, 14- and 16-Year-Olds,” Public Health Nutrition 13, no. 4 (April 2010): 537–543, doi: 10.1017/S1368980009991467.
2 Shira Feldman et al., “Associations Between Watching TV During Family Meals and Dietary Intake Among Adolescents,” Journal of Nutrition Education & Behavior 39, no. 5 (Sept. 2007): 257–263, doi: 10.1016/j.jneb.2007.04.181.
3 Betty Holmes, “Childhood and Adolescent Obesity in America: What’s a Parent to Do?” June 1998, Office of Communications and Technology Resource Center, University of Wyoming (307-766-2115). Accessed November 18, 2010 from http://ces.uwyo.edu/pubs/b1066.pdf, but no longer available online.
4 Cynthia Ogden and Margaret Carroll, “Prevalence of Obesity Among Children and Adolescents: United States, Trends 1963–1965 Through 2007–2008,” June 2010. Accessed November 18, 2010 from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/obesity_child_07_08/obesity_child_07_08.htm.
5 Jayne A. Fulkerson et al., “Family Meal Frequency and Weight Status Among Adolescents: Cross-Sectional and 5-Year Longitudinal Associations,” Obesity 16, no. 11 (August 2008): 2529–2534, doi: 10.1038/oby.2008.388.
6 Kerri N. Boutelle et al., “Fast Food for Family Meals: Relationships With Parent and Adolescent Food Intake, Home Food Availability and Weight Status,” Public Health Nutrition 10, no. 1 (January 2007): 16–23, doi: 10.1017/S136898000721794X.
7 Jayne A. Fulkerson et al., “Are There Nutritional and Other Benefits Associated With Family Meals Among At-Risk Youth?” Journal of Adolescent Health 45, no. 4 (October 2009): 389–395, doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2009.02.011.
8 Marla E. Eisenberg et al., “Correlations Between Family Meals and Psychosocial Well-Being Among Adolescents,” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 158, no. 8 (August 2004): 792–796, doi: 10.1001/archpedi.158.8.792.
9 Council of Economic Advisors, “Teens and Their Parents in the 21st Century: An Examination of the Trends in Teen Behavior and the Role of Parental Involvement.” Accessed November 18, 2010 from http://clinton3.nara.gov/WH/EOP/CEA/html/Teens_Paper_Final.pdf.
10 Barbara J. Mayfield, “Family Meals Fact Sheet.” Accessed November 18, 2010 from http://www.arlingtonva.us/Departments /HumanServices/PublicHealth/SchoolHealth/file65896.pdf.
11 Ibid., Council of Economic Advisors.
12 Bisakha Sen, “The Relationship Between Frequency of Family Dinner and Adolescent Problem Behaviors After Adjusting for Other Family Characteristics,” Journal of Adolescence 33, no. 1 (February 2010): 187–196, doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2009.03.011.
13 James White and Emma Halliwell, “Alcohol and Tobacco Use During Adolescence: The Importance of the Family Mealtime Environment,” Journal of Health Psychology 15, no. 4 (May 2010): 526–532, doi: 10.1177/1359105309355337.
14 The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, “The Importance of Family Dinners VI,” September 22, 2010. Accessed November 18, 2010 from http://www.casacolumbia.org/templates/PressReleases .aspx?articleid=606&zoneid=79.
15 Ibid., Council of Economic Advisors.
16 Ibid., The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
17 Guang Guo, Michael E. Roettger, and Tianji Cai, “The Integration of Genetic Propensities Into Social-Control Models of Delinquency and Violence Among Male Youths,” American Sociological Review 73, no. 4 (August 2008): 543–568, doi: 10.1177/000312240807300402.