What does the phrase “family dinner” mean to you? When I think of a family dinner, I think of the entire family sitting around the table, eating a home-cooked meal, uninterrupted. For many families, this rarely, if ever, happens. Instead the family dinner has morphed into something new and barely recognizable. Instead of eating around the table, families are eating on the couch in front of the TV, they are eating in the car or separately in their rooms. Instead of a home-cooked meal, they are eating take-out, delivery, fast food, frozen dinners or pre-made meals. Instead of an uninterrupted time to enjoy each others company, we are busy watching TV, texting, driving or pretty much anything else you could think of. The loss of the traditional family dinner is a very sad thing; it’s a loss of the celebration of good, real food and the people we love. But it can be reclaimed.
The family dinner has changed significantly in just the past 50 years. Let’s look at some numbers. The USDA has been keeping tabs on how much money Americans are spending on meals away from home. 50 years ago, the average American spent 25% of their food dollars away from home. 30 years ago, it was 37%. And today it’s a whopping 48.9%. That means half of our meals are coming from somewhere other than our own kitchens! This shift has left us with excess weight, families who can’t communicate, a generation who doesn’t know how to cook, and a society that has forgotten what real foods are.
If you don’t think family dinners would benefit your household, you may want to think again after reading these surprising benefits of regular, traditional family dinners.
Kids who regularly eat dinner with their families eat more of the good stuff. A Harvard Medical School survey found that 9 to 14 year olds who ate dinner with their families, ate more fruits and vegetables, less soda and less fried foods. They also got more key nutrients and have a reduced risk of becoming obese. Preparing foods at home and eating them together not only allows the parent to make sure the child is getting healthy nutritious food, but also to teach them about making healthy choices.
No picky eaters here. It’s well known that it takes multiple exposures of a new food for a young child to actually begin to like it. If you want your youngster to love green vegetables, you have to cook them, serve them and eat them yourself; you can’t wait for him to request spinach or broccoli, you have to make it available and be a role model.
The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition conducted a study in which they offered children pieces of sweet red pepper and asked the children to rate how much they liked it each day for 8 days. At the end of 8 days, the children rated the pepper higher and were eating more of it. In fact, they liked it more than another group of children who were given a reward for eating the pepper!
Portion distortion. When we get meals away from home, the portion size is usually way more than is appropriate. The average restaurant meal contains 60% more calories than a meal made at home, and studies have shown that if we are given more food, we will eat more food. When you eat out regularly, you can see how those calories will add up.
Family dinners act as an antidepressant. Frequent family dining reduces the risk of depression and the development of eating disorders in children. Kids are also more likely to report that their parents are proud of them. One reason for this is that spending time together every night allows you to identify any problems early and even prevent them from happening.
Dinners not drugs. Eating dinner as a family at least 5 times a week lowers the chance that your teen will smoke, drink and use drugs. According to a report by Colombia University, teens who ate dinner with their families less than 3 times a week are 3.5 times more likely to have abused prescription drugs and to have used illegal drugs, 3 times more likely to have tried marijuana, more than 2.5 times more likely to have smoked cigarettes and 1.5 times more likely to have tried alcohol. Family dinners are the perfect environment to create open lines of communication, relay expectations, teach respect for self and others, and foster your teen’s self-confidence.
Nourish straight-A students. Of those teens in the Colombia University report who regularly ate family dinners, only 9% did poorly in school. If family dinners fell below 3 a week, 20% of teens got C’s or lower on report cards.
You may think that you don’t have the time or money for regular family dinners, but that is a sorry excuse. Eating at home will actually save you money, not only on the food itself, but also in medical costs later on. As for time, we have found time for playing with our smart phones, time to spend online and time to watch TV, maybe we should take some of that time back and set it aside for dinner. It’s really an investment of your time and your money into your health and your family.
Need help establishing family dinners in your home? Check out our new family program and the Summer Family Challenge! For free tips and tricks listen the the re-broadcast of the family wellness teleseminar.
Klein, Sarah “8 Reasons to Make Time for Family Dinner” FNC iMag. September, 2009.
Hyman, Mark MD “ How Eating at Home Can Save Your Life”.
Oregon Department of Agriculture “Dining out vs. home cooking is now flip of the coin” oregon.gov/ODA. June, 2008.