I can already see your raised eyebrow and hear you muttering, “There isn’t one magic thing that we can do to make our children happy.” But there is! And, surprisingly, it doesn’t involve sports, music lessons or going to church.
It’s eating dinner together as a family at least four nights a week.
Roll your eyes all you want but eating together as a family matters a lot. A lot. It doesn’t matter what the food is (although studies have shown that children who eat dinner with their families tend to make better food choices in general), whether elaborate or simple. What matters is eating together with no electronics. Once the TV is turned on, all benefits of eating together go out the window. So eat and talk. That’s it. That’s the magic formula.
And what does this formula get you? Several studies have shown that children who eat dinner with their families more than four times each week smoke less (both cigarettes and marijuana), consume less alcohol and engage in fewer at-risk behaviors like taking drugs, violence or sexual activity. Family dinners have been found to be a more powerful deterrent against high-risk teen behaviors than even church attendance. Yep, family dinners are THAT important.
Occurrences of depression go down and grades go up. For school-aged kids, regular mealtime is an even more powerful predictor of high achievement scores than time spent in school, doing homework, playing sports or doing art. Teens who ate family meals five to seven times a week were twice as likely to get A’s in school as those who ate dinner with their families fewer than two times a week.
Eating disorders are reduced when the family eats together, and childhood obesity is lessened too (unless you’re a super great cook, I imagine). Young adults who ate regular family meals as teens are less likely to be obese and more likely to eat healthily once they live on their own.
Studies also indicate that dinner conversation is a more potent vocabulary-booster than reading. Young kids learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks aloud. Children who have a large vocabulary read earlier and more easily.
Here’s a pretty cool benefit too: family meals are often a representation of the ethnic, cultural, or religious heritage of the family. As children participate in these cultural traditions, they begin to learn more about their heritage and their family’s history. A study from Emory University found that children who knew a lot about their family history, through family meals and other interactions, had a closer relationship to family members, higher self esteem, and a greater sense of control over their own lives.
But what if you have teenagers and you basically can’t stand each other? Researchers at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health found that even if family members are not very close to each other, having a meal together as a family reduces the risk for many troubling behaviors among teens. So grit your teeth, call a truce and think of some fun things to talk about (what are the funniest memories of Grandma? What was the best family trip we ever took? Who has our weirdest neighbor been?)
All these amazing benefits for something that takes less than an hour. (Even less if you make quesadillas, our family’s favorite quick food.) You can’t get results like this from Tai Kwan Do or soccer! So take a look at your life and your schedule and see if you can’t make more time for something that really matters.
There are some fantastic ideas about making family dinners go more smoothly at The Family Dinner Project.