By Tanni Haas, Ph.D.
Most families find it difficult to get everyone together at the dinner table on a regular basis. We’re all so busy with after-school activities, late meetings at work, and long commutes; it really is too bad. Researchers have learned that eating dinner as a family is extremely important to kids’ physical, mental, and emotional health. As Dr. Anne Fishel, professor at Harvard Medical School and an expert on the benefits of family dinners, says: “Sitting down for a nightly meal is great for the brain, the body and the spirit.”
Kids whose families have regular dinners together are much healthier than those who don’t. They eat more fruits and vegetables, and less fried foods and soft drinks. They eat a wider variety of foods, and they continue to do so once they become adults. They’re also less likely to become obese. Researchers believe that’s because homemade meals are healthier than those in restaurants: we eat smaller portions, at a slower pace, and spend more time talking with one another.
Dining with the family impacts kids’ minds as well as their bodies. Researchers have discovered that dinner-time conversations increase young kids’ vocabulary much more than being read to out loud. So if you have a choice between coming home early for a family dinner or reading your kids a bedtime story, choose the dinner over the bedtime story. Kids who have a large vocabulary learn to read earlier and more easily than those with a more limited vocabulary. Researchers think that’s because that kids constantly hear parents use new words during conversation.
If you have a choice between coming home early for a family dinner or reading your kids a bedtime story, choose the dinner over the bedtime story.
These intellectual benefits carry over into academic achievement. Researchers have discovered that how well kids do in school is determined more by how often they participate in family dinners than by whether they do their homework consistently. Kids who dine regularly with their families are twice as likely get A’s in school than those who only do so rarely.
Fewer Risky Behaviors
Having family dinners is also good for kids’ emotional health. When they dine with their families, they’re much less likely to suffer from eating disorders, abuse alcohol or drugs, or stress and depression. Researchers believe that’s because parents who spend time with their kids at the dinner table are more in touch with their emotional well-being and can offer advice and support when needed. As a result, these kids also have higher self-esteem and trust others more.
Kids say that talking, catching-up, and just spending quality family time are much more important to them than what’s on the menu.
Stronger Family Bonds
Finally, researchers have learned what we all probably know already: eating dinner together enhances family bonds. Kids whose families have regular dinners are much more likely to have good relationships with their parents and siblings. Kids say that talking, catching-up, and just spending quality family time are much more important to them than what’s on the menu. Simply put, eating dinner together creates a strong sense of togetherness and feeling of belonging to a family. Dr. Fishel puts it well: “Dinner is a time to relax, recharge, laugh, tell stories and catch up on the day’s ups and downs, while developing a sense of who we are as a family.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:Tanni Haas, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences, and Disorders at the City University of New York.