Dinner with family needed for many reasons

Put a star on Sept. 27 on your calendar and make a date for dinner with your family.

Family Day: A Day to Eat Dinner with Your Children is celebrated on the fourth Monday every September. It is a national effort to promote family dinners as an effective way to reduce substance abuse among children and teens. This initiative is a perfect way to remind parents that what your kids really want at the dinner table is you.

During the month of September, I’m going to focus on this topic in my Cooking Q & A column so, hopefully, by the end of the month I will have convinced everyone that family mealtime is a priority. Let’s get the “buzz” started early by asking each other, “What are you doing for dinner on Sept. 27?”

In all cultures throughout recorded history, family meals have been an honored ritual for sharing food and providing an opportunity for family members to connect with one another. Recently, societal changes in family structures and schedules have served to undermine families having routine meals. Surveys indicate that the vast majority of families (80 percent) value mealtime together, but the minority (33 percent) successfully achieve daily family meals.

Whether a family comes together to share meals can have a significant impact on a variety of outcomes. Family meals are positively associated with improving dietary quality, preventing obesity, enhancing language acquisition and academic performance, improving social skills and family unity, and reducing risk-taking behaviors. Simply put, family meals spell S-U-C-C-E-S-S, according to Purdue University.

S = Smarter Children:

• Improved vocabularies and reading skills. A study at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, followed 65 families over 15 years, looking at how mealtime conversations play a critical role in language acquisition in young children. The conversations that occur around the family table teach children more vocabulary and forms of discourse than they learn when you read to them. Improved vocabularies lead to better readers. Better readers do better in all school subjects.

• Improved achievement test scores. A University of Illinois study of 120 boys and girls age 7-11 found that children who did well in school and on achievement tests were those who generally spent large amounts of time eating meals with their families.

• Greater academic achievement. 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. Share that with families who may not have money or education or a spouse, but do have it in their power to eat with their kids!

• Higher grades. Research by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University 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.

U = Unlikely to smoke, drink, or take drugs:

In a research project at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, 527 teenagers were studied to determine what family and lifestyle characteristics were related to good mental health and adjustment. It was found that kids who ate dinner with their families at least five times per week were the least likely to take drugs, feel depressed or get into trouble.

According to CASA surveys:

• Teens who eat dinner with their parents twice a week or less are four times more likely to smoke cigarettes, three times more likely to smoke marijuana and nearly twice as likely to drink as those who eat dinner with their parents six or seven times a week.

• Teens who eat frequent family dinners are also less likely than other teens to have sex at young ages and get into fights; they are at lower risk for thoughts of suicide and are likelier to do better in school. This is true regardless of a teen’s gender, family structure or family socioeconomic level.

• Teens who have frequent family dinners are more likely to be emotionally content, work hard at school and have positive peer relationships, not to mention healthier eating habits.

C = Courteous and conversational:

• Family meals are a natural training ground for learning social skills, manners and how to have pleasant conversations.

• It’s at the family table that we learn to talk, learn to behave, to take turns, be polite, not to interrupt, how to share, and when we have guests, how to entertain — good lessons for success in life.

C = Connected to family:

• According to CASA surveys, teens who have frequent family dinners are more likely to be emotionally content, work hard at school and have positive peer relationships.

• A study by the Kraft Company found that American families who eat together are happier in many aspects of their lives than those who don’t. Children and teens who eat family meals together experience improved family communication, have stronger family ties and a greater sense of identity and belonging.

E = Eating better:

• Dianne Neumark-Sztainer and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota published the results of the EAT study (which stands for eating among teens) in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Their findings showed a dramatic relationship between family meal patterns and dietary intake in adolescents. Their study involved nearly 5,000 middle and high school students of diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. They found that family meals were associated with improved intakes of fruits, vegetables, grains, calcium-rich foods, protein, iron, fiber and vitamins A, C, E, B-6 and folate. Family meals were associated with a lower intake of soft-drinks and snack foods.

• The Project EAT survey also found that girls who ate more frequent family meals exhibited less disordered eating including dieting behaviors, extreme weight control behaviors, binge eating and chronic dieting.

• Family meals may help prevent childhood obesity for a variety of reasons: Children feel secure that they will be fed; regular meals prevent grazing and promote coming to the table hungry but not “starving.” Parents can role-model healthy eating behaviors and a healthy relationship with food and eating. Eating can be a focused activity if other activities such as television viewing are not taking place; therefore, hunger and satiety cues can be attended to and respected. Family meals promote a sense of belonging and lower the risk for loneliness-induced eating for comfort.

S = Sharing food and conversation at meals.

S = Strengthens families.