What if there’s a simple thing you could do to increase the odds that your children would make healthier food choices, thrive at school and be less impacted by negative peer pressure? Must be a gimmick, right? No. Actually, there is evidence that simply eating dinner together as a family on a regular basis can lead to these benefits and others. A 2012 study by Columbia University found that the benefits of eating together as a family five or more times per week led to kids developing better eating habits, less propensity for use of illegal substances, positive effects on school performance and closer bonds with parents.
Family members provide the biggest influence on children’s food choices. When families eat together, children can learn from positive role modeling related to maintaining portion control, eating a variety of food, consuming fruits and vegetables and limiting sweets. This assumes that the grownups are making good food choices themselves. Including kids in meal preparation and serving can make home meals even more palatable (pun intended!).
Students who eat with their families on a regular basis also do better in school. While the causal relationship is not clear, one theory is that dining together provides a time to talk about school, building in accountability for students and allowing parents to take more active roles since they are better informed. Often, things come up that may need to be further explored by reaching out to a teacher or checking out a class website for more information. This builds the home-school connection, a collaboration that yields a myriad of benefits.
Parents often bemoan their children’s lack of willingness to be forthcoming about school. When they ask, “How was school?” they get the obligatory “fine” in response. A better approach is to ask more specific, targeted questions like these:
- What was the most interesting thing you learned today?
- Tell me about something you read today.
- What was the best thing about your day?
- Was there anything that happened today that made you feel excited, happy, frustrated or annoyed?
- What is something that came up today that you are still wondering about?
The great thing about these types of questions is that they can easily be applied to the adults’ days as well. Writing different questions or statements on slips of paper and putting them in a basket to be pulled out and discussed can add a bit of novelty to dinnertime conversation.
In “UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World” (2016), Michele Borba discusses the importance of helping children develop empathy and gratitude in the current landscape, which can lend itself to self-absorption and narcissism. Mealtime conversation is a terrific opportunity for this important parenting work. When parents discuss their own feelings, share their mistakes, contemplate ways to show kindness, and define their own struggles with limiting technology or active listening, kids learn that they are not alone in these challenges. Discussing appropriate current events and making inferences about how others must be feeling as they experience hardships or achievements provides vocabulary for children who may encounter similar emotions in the future. Modeling the expression of gratitude for gifts, both tangible and intangible, reminds children to be thankful for what they have, rather than always demanding more.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of family dinnertime comes from the simple accumulation of time spent together. Realizing that childhood is fleeting — that this season of opportunity will pass when children leave the nest — reminds all of us to capitalize on the simple act of sitting down together and breaking bread.