Karen Ensle EdD, RDN, FAND, CFCS Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County
Last year’s “Share the Table” Barilla study conducted by William J. Doherty, Ph.D., a Professor of Family Social Science and Director of the Citizen Professional Center at the University of Minnesota, was an eye-opener. Reviewing a large, representative sample of American adults, this study revealed that Americans view family dinners as THE place to foster family connections, even much more important than many other activities that families can do together, including vacations! The study also found that a benefit of sharing meals with family members is that they are less likely to be overweight. So, the fact is, according to several studies, sitting down to share a meal together with your family makes people happier and healthier. Looking at the family unit, which is very complex, the results of the health benefits of family meals is wonderful, but also the emotional benefits of eating together encourages family connections. So how does a busy family find time to prepare and eat together as much as possible? What do kids and parents say about the value of eating together? Some interesting findings indicate that family meals matter as much to kids as they do for adults. As parents, we might feel we are “pushing” the family dinner on our kids, but this study shows that’s not the case. Kids and parents feel closer to each other; kids appreciate their parents more and they feel that their parents are more relaxed and fun to be around. Laughter was listed as the top attribute that defines the quality of a family dinner. Other findings that define a quality family dinner include: the relaxed atmosphere at the table and having cohesiveness as a unit with everyone in the family included at the table. This research indicates having the total group enjoying the same food and conversation and participating as if they were on a “team together” helps to support each member and their overall health, wellness and weight. Other important aspects of family meals include having the group remain seated until everyone has finished their meal, showing respect for each other and the family unit as a whole. While technology is definitely present in some form at most dinner tables today (particularly television and smart phones), these often cause negative moods, lack of communication and conversation with the family unit. High quality mealtime experiences are important for families and kids. This research also reports that parents are happier and more satisfied with their lives and kids are more likely to say they are respectful, happy, rule followers, confident, independent, and hard-working if they eat meals with their family. Kids who eat with their family also show better leadership skills and are more outgoing in their actions at school, in sports and on a part-time job. So, the next time you get together for a family meal when everyone is present, take the time to relax, start a conversation that everyone can participate in, and let good feelings and some laughter flow. Take these small steps and you and your family will be healthier and happier for it.