The Surprising Links Between Family Dinner and Good Health

Adults who prepare quality meals for children are offering something more important than a nutrition lesson.

When the 10 Garcia-Prats boys got together every night for dinner, they shared more than food around the table. They talked about the successes and frustrations of their days. The older boys helped the younger ones cut their meat. They compared their picks for the World Cup, a conversation that turned into an impromptu geography lesson.

Their mother, Cathy, author of Good Families Don’t Just Happen: What We Learned from Raising Our Ten Sons and How It Can Work for You, strove to make the dinner table warm and welcoming, a place where her boys would want to linger. “Our philosophy is that dinnertime is not just a time to feed your body; it’s a time to feed your mind and your soul,” she told me over the phone from her Houston home. “It lets us have an opportunity to share our day, be part of each others’ lives.”

Today, families like the Garcia-Pratses are the exception. According the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health, fewer than half of Americans eat meals daily with their families, a statistic that highlights the breakneck pace at which we live and our grab-and-go food culture.

Adults who prepare quality meals for children are offering something more important than a nutrition lesson.

Greater economic pressures only exacerbate these cultural trends, because many families are forced to work two jobs to afford the basics and have little time to slow down and have dinner.

But the deterioration of the family meal may be more damaging than we realize. “Our lives have gotten so hectic and so busy that if you don’t set aside time as a family, I think you just get lost,” Garcia-Prats said. “Then you’re just individuals living in a building, instead of a family living in a home, supporting each other and being there for each other.”

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Dinner and happiness

When food advocate and chef Tom French asked a student how she felt after his organization, the Experience Food Project, began replacing the bland, processed food in her school cafeteria with fresh, healthy school lunches, he received an unexpected answer.

“She gave it some serious thought,” he told me over the phone. “Then she said, ‘You know, I feel respected.’”

Moments like this make French believe that adults who prepare quality meals for children are offering something more important than a nutrition lesson: They are communicating that they care. This is why the Experience Food Project teaches PTA parents about the importance of prioritizing family meals and helps them schedule the logistics of dinnertime.

French says “mountains of statistical data” correlates family dinner with benefits such as better communication, higher academic performance, and improved eating habits. Having dinner together boosts family cohesiveness and is associated with children’s motivation in school, positive outlook, and avoidance of high-risk behaviors. Teens who frequently eat with their families are half as likely to smoke or use pot than those who rarely have family dinners, according to researchers at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

The correlation between family dinner and well-adjusted teens is so strong that the center launched the first Family Day on September 27, an annual event honoring the family meal. The day recognizes that “parental engagement fostered during frequent family dinners is an effective tool to help keep America’s kids substance free.”

President Obama officially proclaimed Family Day 2010, noting that it served as an opportunity to “recommit to creating a solid foundation for the future health and happiness of all our nation’s children.”

Communities from all over the country held Family Day celebrations, and some made the event into a weeklong affair. Families found creative ways to celebrate each others’ company over food—putting together homemade pizzas, picnicking, doing activities from the center’s Family Dinner Kit, and eating at restaurants offering discounts for the occasion.

Families of all types benefit from sharing life’s daily ups and downs around the table.

Such events draw attention to the ways in which meals together help families strengthen their relationships, according to Joseph A. Califano Jr.,  founder and chairman of National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. “The more often teens have dinner with their parents, the more likely they are to report talking to their parents about what’s going on in their lives,” Califano said in a statement to the media. “In today’s busy and overscheduled world, taking the time to come together for dinner really makes a difference in a child’s life.”

Family dinner also encourages the development of language skills and emotional intelligence in children. During dinner conversations, children learn how to articulate their feelings and experiences and to communicate respect—whether that means asking politely for a dish or talking about their day at school. Research shows that children who have acquired skills in identifying and expressing emotion and negotiating conflict often experience less distress, have fewer behavior problems, hold more positive attitudes about school, and exhibit better academic performance.

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Fusion cuisine

Finding ways to connect is increasingly important as families become more diverse and must negotiate cultural and generational difference. “People are tired and they are working and they are blending cultures and blending generations,” said French, who grew up in a household with his great-grandmother.

Families of all types benefit from sharing life’s daily ups and downs around the table. In a 2010 study of a group of racially diverse, low-income, urban youth, kids who ate family dinner more frequently had more positive perceptions of their communication with their parents. Extended and blended families may find that dinner solidifies fledgling or fragile bonds. And families that unite multiple cultures can make the sharing of specific traditions and dishes—which, as French puts it, “carry generations of cultural DNA”—into a centerpiece of family bonding.

As Garcia-Prats sees it, dinner is a time when families can celebrate their differences. “We learn diversity appreciation in our homes,” she said. “It’s going to be hard to appreciate someone else’s religion or ethnicity or culture if we haven’t even learned to appreciate the uniqueness of each person in our own family. It’s one of our philosophies: We are 12 unique individuals in this home.”

At dinner, we bridge the gaps between us by sharing our food and the stories of our lives. And the moments we spend together at the table form the basis of something remarkably profound. Call it what you will—sibling bonding, communicating respect, bridging cultures—but at the very least it is, as Garcia-Prats told me, “not just about food.” It is about the way food can connect us.

Katherine Gustafson wrote this article for What Happy Families Know, the Winter 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Katherine is a freelance writer and editor with a background in international nonprofit organizations. She is the author of Change Comes to Dinner: How Vertical Farmers, Urban Growers, and Other Innovators Are Revolutionizing How America Eats.