A recent conversation with a friend who is a teacher emphasized something that has been a recurring theme over the past year. In an attempt to get to know his students as they enter class in the new school year, he asks them to write the answers to a few questions about themselves. One of the questions is “How many times a week do you sit down with your family for a meal?” This teacher is fully aware of the research that clearly links family meals with student performance in the classroom, and even wellbeing outside of school.
This conversation prompted me to reprint a column from last year that several people have commented on. With the kids starting a new year at school, now is the ideal time to think about a new start around the dinner table at home.
What simple activity can increase a child’s grades, reduce the likelihood of drug, alcohol, and tobacco use, and decrease the incidence of teen obesity and depression? Eating together as a family.
Several studies have clearly shown these results; one from the University of Minnesota even statistically eliminated all possible variables like income, and even how cohesive the family was, and concluded that it’s actually sitting down as a family at mealtimes that was the primary cause of significant improvements in children’s health and wellbeing… especially among girls.
Not surprisingly, the studies found that adolescents eating regular family meals ate more fruit and vegetables, got more calcium, and drank significantly fewer soft drinks. However, the benefits of sitting down to a family meal extend far beyond these, and include reduction in substance, tobacco, and alcohol use and significantly better academic performance and mental health when compared to those eating fewer family meals. And the benefits increased with each additional family meal per week!
Television is the biggest challenge for family meal time. According to the Canadian Pediatric Association, children at age 15 have spent more time in front of a television than in classrooms. And kids aren’t the only offenders. Meals in front of the TV tend to be reheated frozen snacks that are, simply put, health hazards. Television programming is a very poor substitute for the kind of family communication and bonding that takes place around the dinner table.
Accepting the benefits of family mealtime is one thing, doing something about it is quite another. Adolescents have always been difficult to convince that doing things as a family are “cool” and even beneficial. Add the overwhelming distractions available, from part time jobs to sports to video games to computers to cell phones to television and it’s a really hard sell to convince kids that sitting down to a family meal is a useful or enjoyable activity.
Experts in child and adolescent psychology offer some guidelines, but each family will have to formulate its own set of principles (preferably in conference with the kids) that will guide family mealtimes.
o Turn off the television. Agree also to turn off cell phones and let the household phone pick up and take messages. Importantly, the parents have to take the lead here and set an example.
o This is not a time for discussing serious, controversial, or delicate subjects. The meal conversation should be light, fun, and upbeat and the mood supportive and comfortable.
o Get everyone involved in the meal. Where there’s the interest, involve the family in planning the week’s menus, helping with the shopping, and joining in the food preparation. Clean up should also be shared fairly. Eventually, maybe older kids can take a lead role in preparing dinner (and the parents get clean-up duty).
o To begin with, the family meal does not have to be complicated. Even sitting down together for a take-out pizza or (better) a take out meal from one of Pelham’s excellent caterers like Lorenzo’s Fine Foods, Wild Flower, or Whisk and Ladle, constitutes a family meal so long as everyone sits down and eats together.
o Set a goal. Maybe begin with the commitment to sit down together as a family twice a week and discuss increasing the frequency as you all get used to the idea.
o Use the crock pot or slow cooker. Coming home to the smell of a home-cooked meal is a pretty good way to build enthusiasm for a family dinner.
On a related note, Slow Food Pelham’s annual “family dinner” at Featherstone Winery was a huge success. Forty guests, seated on the winery’s wrap-around verandah, enjoyed slow-roasted Featherstone Vineyard lamb with Featherstone Cabernet Franc, roasted vegetables by Pan Restaurant, delicious salads by Victory Herbs and Farms, and finished off the meal with home-cooked Niagara Peach Delight. It was a gorgeous September evening, shared among friends both new and old.