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Family meals matter—staying connected

by Anita Gurian, PhD


Family Meals Matter - The Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center

 Staying connected isn't easy. In many families each member goes off in a different direction: work, school, after-school and social programs, and many other activities. Statistics tell us that Americans spend 40 minutes a week playing with their children, and members of working couples talk to one another an average of only 12 minutes a day. Kids spend more and more time in after school activities—sports, hobbies, clubs, and religious instruction. Fitting in family time is becoming harder and harder. In the past 20 years structured sports time has doubled, family dinners have declined 33% and family vacations have decreased 28%. As parents are working harder and longer and kids' schedules are more and more crowded, there is a decline in ordinary family togetherness such as talking during mealtime or going to family celebrations.

Are kids being short-changed? Are they missing out on the experiences that family connections provide? Studies tell us that depression, anxiety, substance abuse among children and adolescents have increased significantly. Is there a connection? The good news is that parents can make a difference. Numerous polls have shown that teens want more, not less, time with their parents and value their parents' opinions. Studies also show us that parent involvement has positive effects on adolescent tobacco use, depression, eating disorders, academic achievement, and other problems

What is parent-child connectedness? It's an emotional and mutual bond based on warmth and trust that starts early and has a powerful impact on a child's development. As the child grows, connectedness happens in different ways. In the early years the parent-child connection means touching, feeding, guiding beginning language and social/emotional development. Connections keep expanding and changing and by the pre- and teen-age years connection means sharing thoughts and ideas, problem-solving together, respecting autonomy. During these years parents and adolescents find the delicate balance between staying connected and letting go.

Keeping connectedness ongoing—start with family meals

Family meals are becoming a lost ritual, and since their benefits are extensive, it's important to get them back. A report issued by CASA (National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University) found that teens that have two or fewer family dinners per week are twice as likely to smoke daily and to get drunk monthly compared to teens who have family dinners five times per week

The menu in family meals may not be varied but the shared time, even if it doesn't happen every night, is invaluable. As family members take off in different directions, sharing meals can be a time to regroup. Family meals provide a safe place where everyone can talk about their day, listen to each other, and try out ideas. Meal time is not only about food; it's a time when family stories and jokes are told, when a sense of family values is instilled. Family meals can serve also as an emotional clearing-house and support system when someone's down or excited or angry or in a quandary.

The following are some tips on making family meals special:

  • Communication starts before meal time and continues afterward. Have kids help in preparations and in clearing and cleanup, not presented as a chore but as part of a group effort. Their participation makes them feel valued and respected.
  • Avoid criticism, and passing judgment. Meal time is not a time for complaints or for too many questions.
  • Specific, non-judgmental remarks or questions can get kids started. They'll learn to take turns and listen to others, valuable social skills in many situations.
  • Parents too can share something interesting about their day. When parents talk about their experiences, they're providing models of behavior and sharing of values.
  • Meal time is a good time to learn manners—setting the table, taking turns, passing food and other customs can become habits.
  • Family meals don't always have to be in the same place of at the same time; lunch or brunch or picnics work just as well.

Family meal times pay off in numerous benefits.

Better nutrition is one plus. Parent-child connectedness has many other plusses, one of which is the pleasure of spending non-pressured time together, not focused solely on academic, sports, or any other kind of achievement.

Children who eat with their families are less likely to snack on unhealthy foods and more likely to eat healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Studies have shown that when family meals are prioritized, structured, and positive in atmosphere, fewer weight control problems and disordered eating patterns were observed.

Find time other than meals to be together. Even small moments in the course of a day—such as before bedtime, sharing reactions to a television program, shopping together—can encourage conversation.

Mealtime is only one way for families to stay connected. Know what's going on in your child's life. Be involved in his/her school, sports and/or other activities. Know your kid's friends and their teachers. Go to games and other events to show support and pride. Sharing experiences provide opportunities to talk about successes, disappointments and alternative ways of solving problems.

Celebrate old and new family traditions. Mark birthdays and graduations, and also create new reasons to celebrate -- a good grade, a musical performance, etc.

In addition to pleasure and emotional support, staying connected pays off in other significant ways. Research has shown that parent involvement is a protective factor against adolescent tobacco use, depression, eating disorders, academic achievement, and other problems. By staying connected with their children and teenagers, parents can be a source of support, create a climate for discussing tough issues and serve as a role model for responsible and empathic behavior.