In 2003, Nickelodeon TV launched a program that’s having a remarkably positive effect on families across the country. No, it’s not the Drake and Josh show, but rather a series of promotional spots called ‘The Family Table: Share More Than Meals.’ The spots remind viewers of the emotional and social benefits of eating together as a family.

Such a reminder would have been laughable in the ‘50s, when families routinely ate together. But over the following decades, spurred by the convenience of fast food, moms returning to the workforce, and activities that filled every spare niche of children’s time, the number of family dinners fell by a third. Today, TV, computer games, and Instant Messaging compete for kids’ attention, luring them away from the practice of eating as a family.

Nickelodeon and the TV Land network devoted $11 million in air-time to get the ‘Family Table’ message out to their 160 million viewers, and the networks’ ads, along with other media coverage of emerging research, started to reverse the trend that had been declining for decades.

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Why the big push to return to the family table? Research shows that kids who eat frequent meals with their families are healthier, happier and much less likely to engage in activities that are harmful to their health and well-being. The list of benefits is so long and far-reaching that it’s hard to believe something as simple as sharing a casserole could have such an impact.

Analyzing more than ten years of data from an in-depth study, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University found in 2005 that the more often families eat together, the less likely kids are to turn to substance abuse, get depressed, consider suicide, start having sex, or develop eating disorders. These tendencies are significant: the risk for substance abuse, for example, is 50 percent lower in kids who eat frequent meals with their families.

Kids who sit down to regular dinners with families also have more positive peer relationships, eat healthier food, get better grades in school, have lower levels of tension in the home, and are more likely to say their parents are proud of them.

The food at family meals doesn’t have to be fancy, nor does the setting have to be formal. The critical components appear to be sharing, talking and listening, and the benefits of family dinners go beyond just the topics of conversation. During shared meals, kids absorb new vocabulary, learn to conduct a conversation, assimilate good table manners, and experience ideas and strategies for solving a problem.

When you think about a typical American family at dinner, you might envision an upper middle-class family of freckle-faced boys and pigtailed girls gathered around the table with a smiling mom and dad – sort of a Brady Bunch scene. But the CASA study found that more than half of Hispanic kids, eat with a parent at least six times per week, while only 40 percent of blacks and 39 percent of white kids do. Foreign-born kids tend to eat more meals with their families. Surprisingly, parents with less than a high school education eat more frequent meals with their kids than parents who graduated from high school or college, a factor that researchers believe may compensate for whatever might be lacking in terms of higher education on the home front. Research shows that kids who eat frequently with parents are 40 percent more likely to get good grades in school.

Older kids need family mealtime the most, yet are the ones least likely to get it.

The CASA study found that while 55 percent of 12-year olds ate dinner with a parent every night, only 26 percent of 17-year olds did. Research shows that older teens – despite their rolling eyes and hands-on-hips attitudes – still need and want parental involvement. The majority of kids surveyed wished they ate more meals with their parents, and wanted to talk about sensitive subjects, including peer pressure, dating, and substance abuse. These conversations are worth culturing, because kids who feel comfortable confiding in their parents are at a much lower risk for substance abuse.
Despite all the data showing that the family meal is so powerful, researchers don’t exactly know why the practice helps kids say no to drugs, choose the right kind of friends, get better grades, and puts them a lower risk for suicide. The family meal may be just one part of the puzzle, impossible to isolate from the big picture called ‘family values.’ Miriam Weinstein, author of ‘The Surprising Power of Family Meals,’ believes that the ritual combines two of our basic needs – nourishment and connection – while providing an anchor for everyone’s day. Perhaps most importantly, mealtimes give adolescents reliable access to their parents.

What researchers do know is that is that regular family dinners work like a tonic against all manner of potential pitfalls for kids. Though gathering nightly for a meal might require a shift of priorities and schedules, it may be the smartest change parents can make.

If your family is not used to having regular dinners, you might meet with rebellion – even awkwardness – when you begin to sit down together. Don’t despair. CASA found that the more often a family eats together, the better the experience tends to be.

So how do you have regular family meals when one kid plays club soccer, and another has daily rehearsals for the high school play or track practice every afternoon? None of us wants to deny our kids these enriching experiences, many of which have been shown, in their own right, to boost academic ability and self esteem. Ultimately, each family has to find their own way to come together for meals. But here are a few tips toward reaching that goal.

1. Turn off the TV, and give your kids your undivided attention.
2. Be flexible – a family breakfast or weekend brunch counts as a family meal.
3. If one parent works at night, or if you’re a single parent, you can till have a family dinner with your kids.
4. Have a list of simple meals you can make on hectic evenings.
5. Involve the kids; they’re more likely to feel like part of the family and to try new foods when they help prepare it.
6. Regular doesn’t have to mean boring. You can still connect with your kids whether you go out to a restaurant, bring home Chinese take-out, or have a picnic on the docks at Donner Lake. This winter, one crazy dad I know had a few family dinners in a snowcave that he built next to his house. You can bet his kids will remember that for a long, long time.

-Linda is a 20-year Tahoe resident and mother of one. She has a degree in Natural Resources and has worked in environmental education, forestry and wilderness planning. Contact Linda at linda@moonshineink.com or 530-587-3607.

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