Movies and television shows often portray idyllic family dinners in which everyone is sitting around a table, sharing stories of their day and enjoying a meal together. However, as a father of a nearly 4-year old and a 7 month old, tranquil, delightful moments of family bonding over a meal can be difficult to come by. Our dinnertime is often interrupted by explanations by our eldest daughter about how she is not hungry, coupled with reasons that she needs to get up and walk around. This is often exacerbated if our youngest is crying or fussing. This being the case, my wife and I still feel it is worthwhile to have dinner together as a family and research encourages this practice.
The Washington Post published an article in 2015 that highlighted the work of Anne Fishel, a professor at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of The Family Dinner Project. The article, titled, “The most important thing you can do with your kids? Eat dinner with them”, discussed recent research into the effects that having dinner together as a family can have on child development. The article breaks down how dinnertime is good for the brain, the body, and the soul.
The article begins by explaining how family dinners are beneficial for the brain. According to data collected by Fishel’s team, for younger children, dinnertime conversation increased vocabulary more than being read aloud to. The reason given for this is that the variety of words you use in everyday conversation is greater than the words typically found in children’s books that you may read to your child. Furthermore, the study found that for school aged children, regular family mealtimes has a greater effect on high academic achievement than time spent in school, doing homework, playing sports, or doing art. For teenagers, eating meals together as a family between 5-7 times week, leads to students earning A’s more than twice as much as students who report eating dinner with their families fewer than 2 times a week.
In addition to being good for the brain, eating together as a family also has shown to be good for the body. Numerous studies, including those conducted by The Family Dinner Project, have found that children who eat together with their families regularly eat more vegetables, fruits, vitamins, and micronutrients, as well as less soda and fewer fried foods. Of course this is all dependent upon what parents serve their children for dinner and eat themselves. A family dinner is a great opportunity for parents to model healthy eating habits and discuss with children the importance of eating a well-balanced diet. We aim to reinforce this at school as well by serving students a variety of fruits and vegetables, and by addressing nutrition and healthy living in some of our IPC units throughout the grade levels. Furthermore, this term our school nurse, Nurse Lia, will be teaching lessons about nutrition to each of our classes. It is important to have a consistent, clear message coming from both home and school that a healthy balance diet is important for developing our bodies and minds.
The final area addressed by Ms. Fishel’s article is the development of the soul, which includes personal and social development, as well as the ability to make good choices. Numerous studies have linked regular family dinners to lowering behaviors such as smoking, marijuana use, binge drinking, violence, and school problems. In many families, the dinner table is the one place where everyone agrees to meet at a particular time each day. It is an opportunity for the family to connect, share stories of their day, and bond with one another. It is a great place for children to learn good manners, as well as how to be a responsible member of the family by helping prepare the meal and clean up.
It is clear that regular family meals are beneficial for children’s brains, bodies, and souls, however, as with anything, there are always the logistics to work out: Do parents’ schedules allow for regular meals together? How much time is a reasonable amount to expect children to sit at a meal? Will we allow phones? Will the television be on? What if we don’t know what to talk about? Firstly, I suggest visiting https://thefamilydinnerproject.org/resources/faq/ to learn more about the research and for suggestions. Then, it is up to us as parents to make eating together regularly a priority.