Behavioral Consult

Family dinners are good medicine


 

Intuitively, we have come to believe that adding more to each family members’ schedule – a lesson, an activity, more homework time – is more enriching or meaningful than is a family dinner, which appears to have less direct impact. However, there is a growing body of evidence that, when an entire family eats dinner together 5 or more nights weekly, the emotional health and well-being of all family members is improved. Not only is their health improved, as there is a greater likelihood of eating nutritious food, but so are a child’s school performance and emotional well-being. As the frequency of eating dinner with parents goes up, the rates of mood and anxiety disorders and high-risk behaviors in teenagers go down.

Family gathered around the table with autistic child Wavebreakmedia/Thinkstock

But less than 60% of children eat five or more meals with their parents each week (National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse [CASA], 2012). Few people would suggest that encouraging families to eat dinner together is a bad idea, but time is the ultimate scarce resource. Preparing food and eating together takes time, and parents and children have many demands on that time that feel nonnegotiable, such as homework, exercise, team practice, or work obligations. When you meet with your patients and explain the tremendous health benefits of eating dinner together, you help your patients and their parents make informed decisions about how to rebalance time to prioritize family dinners that have real but fewer obvious impacts then do a piano lesson or dance class.

Of course, children who eat regular family dinners eat more fruits and vegetables and fewer fried foods and soft drinks than do their peers who eat dinner with their families less often. They are less likely to become obese in youth and more likely to eat healthily and maintain a healthy weight once they live on their own as adults.

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