In today’s society families are busier than ever before. Many families consist of both parents working outside the home to make ends meet, and increasingly, many children are being raised in a single-parent and blended or binuclear homes. Some statistics claim that 75% of all children will spend some time within a single-parent household. When something has to give to meet the demands of raising a family, one of the first things to go seems to be family meals. How many families continue to eat meals together on a regular daily basis? And, does not eating meals together as a family impact family relationship and to what extent? Research on this subject is overwhelming and seems to prove that the lack of family mealtime not only impacts the family, but society as well.
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During a recent family dinner, a young female acquaintance was amazed to find that there was no special occasion that brought the family to the dinner table, that it was a nightly affair. To the family it was just an ordinary meal of pot roast, nothing special, but to her, it was a feast. In questioning her as to her family traditions and meals, it was amazing to learn that her family never ate meals together. Their meals consisted of pre-packaged or frozen foods and they ate whenever they were hungry and wherever they happened to be. They ate in the living room while watching TV or in their bedroom, but generally they ate alone. That was the normal routine for her family.
It is no wonder that families today are facing problems with obesity, eating disorders, drug abuse, students with low scholastic achievement, and battle depression. Statistics show that “Children who frequently eat meals with their families tend to do better in school”, “consumed higher amounts of important nutrients such as calcium, fiber, iron, vitamins B6 and B12, C and E and consumed less overall fat, compared to families who ‘never’ or ‘only sometimes’ eat meals together” (Meals Matter, 2008). Studies show that the more a family eats together the less likely the children are to drink, smoke, do drugs, have eating disorders, get depressed and have suicidal tendencies. Families who eat together regularly have children who do better in school, delay having sex, eat healthier, have better table manners, and a larger vocabulary. This confirms that it isn’t just about eating food, but rather the interaction and caring between families.
A ten year study at Columbia University by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) found that the older kids are, the more they need time together with their family, but they are less likely to get it. The study shows that 12-year-olds claimed they had dinner seven nights a week, but only a quarter of 17-year-olds did (Time). This same study found that the least educated parents ate meals together the most, while parents with diplomas or college degrees shared fewer meals together with their kids. Another interesting find was that “more than half of Hispanic teens ate with a parent at least six times a week, in contrast to 40% of black teens and 39% of whites”.
Mealtime is where a family builds its culture and identity, family traditions and stories are passed down as well as humor being shared. Eating meals together encourages more communication within the family. Topics can be discussed, parents can see how their child interacts, what they are wearing, find out who their friends are and what they are interested in, as well as discuss current events and help qualm fears their child may have concerning school, friends, their future plans, and life in general. In other words, family interaction at mealtimes informs the parents as well as the kids what is happening within the family and the world that surrounds them.
According to Science Daily, “parents who have regular meals with their adolescent children might help lessen the chances they will start drinking or smoking later in their teen years”. (ScienceDaily, 2008) The Division of Adolescent Health and Medicine at the University of Minnesota surveyed 806 Minnesota adolescents as to how often they ate meals with their family as well as their use of marijuana, cigarettes and alcohol and followed up with a second mail survey five years later. According to the follow-up survey, girls who ate regular family meals had significantly less substance abuse than girls who didn’t have regular family meals. The surprising find in this survey was that boys showed no difference in substance abuse determined by the frequency or absence of family mealtime.
In a study of 65 children that spanned 65 years, Harvard researchers looked at activities of children and how they contributed to healthy child development. They used things such as play, story time, family functions and other factors and the end result was that dinners were the most important attribute for better adjustment. (Marino & Butkus, unknown) Researchers discovered a link between well-adjusted adolescents and the frequency of family meals, with no correlation to gender, age, or family type. A survey conducted in 1997 of 527 teens revealed that those who were best adjusted ate a meal with an adult family member at least 5 days a week, “were less likely to do drugs or be depressed and were more motivated at school and had better relationships” (Marino & Butkus, unknown). Meanwhile, according to Child Trends’ Data Bank, in 2003, 42 percent of adolescents ate a meal with their family at least six days a week, while 27% ate a meal as a family four to five days a week, and 31% ate meals as a family less than three days a week. (Child Trend’s, 2007)
In taking a survey of a son’s friends (1 female, 5 males) the results revealed that a surprising number of them that did not eat regular family meals together (Zemke, Feb 10, 2010). One of these friends had a family dinner once a year, for Thanksgiving, while two ate together generally on Sundays. Two usually ate meals as a family each night, unless there was an outside activity that prevented it, such as the child working. There was only one student who ate meals together as a family daily. Each of these kids felt that their family mealtime was normal and those who did not eat together did not seem to mind, which a person can assume that is because it has become their normal routine and they know nothing different. This is an alarming trend considering the repercussions from families not spending quality time together, generally around the dinner table. But, there are solutions to this problem and ways to reverse this trend.
Children model our behavior. If parents don’t perceive something such as healthy eating and quality time with our children important, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that it is not something that they will perceive as important. Family meals should be dynamic, nutritious, interesting, and a habit. There are many ways to ensure this:
- Keep meals simple
- Have everybody help with the cooking
- Sit down and slow down for mealtime
- Don’t eat in the car
- Eat together as a family if going to a restaurant
- Avoid confrontations – mealtimes shouldn’t be the time to discipline your children
- Give praise and invite conversation with your children
- Tell family stories; build identity and culture within your family
- Don’t answer the phone during mealtime
- Cook in bulk so you don’t have to cook each day
- Ask children for meal suggestions to involve them
- Make time to eat together as a family
Purchase ready-made sauces or marinade and add it to sautéed chicken, beef or shrimp for a tasty main course.
Order pizza and make a salad, then watch a movie or play games together as a family.
The benefits of taking the time to gather the family for a meal will be a worthwhile investment in any family and enrich everyone’s lives. Another way to build a strong bond within a family if dinner isn’t an option is to have breakfast together; this can give a good start to a child’s day with a healthy breakfast. Research has proven that breakfast kick-starts your metabolism, helps you concentrate and perform better in school or at work.
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As stated earlier, today’s families are busier than ever and this makes having quality time with your children even more important in today’s society. There are multiple ways to maintain a healthy relationship with your children as well as your spouse. It makes no difference if dinner is with both parents or one, or even with extended family members, nor does it matter if it is dinner. The meal can be breakfast or lunch, whichever fits the families schedules the best. Having a family breakfast can be a wonderful start to a busy day. The main idea is to allot time for the family to communicate and form a strong bond. Eating together will improve children’s manners, provide intimacy as well as create a secure environment for teenagers.
Eating meals together is important for a child’s development and self-esteem outside of the home, gives the child confidence and teaches them how to behave with others. Eating together enables parents to see what their child is eating and if they finish their food, this may help ward off any upcoming eating disorders or other emotional problems the child may have.
Families who eat together on a regular basis tend to eat healthier by eating more fruit, dark-green vegetables and drink less soft drinks. Children feel more positive about themselves and their family, they are less likely to smoke, use drugs or alcohol, or become depressed and more likely to do well in school and develop better relationships with their peers.
Schools and community organizations should also be encouraged to make it easier for families to have shared mealtimes on a regular basis. Help organize events that would include the whole family being together. If meals are hard to pull together because of work, plan a family night for games, puzzles, read a story or watch a movie. Order pizza, or have a bowl of ice-cream, something that will bring the family together for even one-half hour will be beneficial.
More importantly, remember that children mimic their parents, if the parents do not care enough to make time to be with their children for mealtime or any other time, then don’t be surprised if the child seeks attention from someone or something else to fill that void in their life.
A relaxed family meal is the perfect time to teach kids, not just about manners, but about personal and spiritual beliefs, values and lessons we want them to learn (Knight, 2002). It is a great time to give your child your undivided attention, which lets them know you care about how they feel, their concerns, passions, and who their friends are. Mealtimes can be a time to quell a child’s fears about current events, make plans for family vacations, or what you plan on doing for the weekend. Lifestyles make it difficult but eating together as a family is important to begin from a young age and becomes particularly important for the physical and emotional health of teens. Even if you order pizza and eat off paper plates, the time spent together as a family will always be time well spent.