Jana Morgan Herman, guest contributor, shares thoughts and resources about the importance of family meals.
If you learned that there was a way to increase your child’s vocabulary by tens of thousands of words, make them better listeners, allow them to express themselves more civilly, make them feel that their parents understand them, ensure they have higher nutrition levels, reduce their stress, make them less likely to smoke or use drugs, and – get this — was free, would you do it?
Well, you can. You can have a family meal together once a day.
This holiday season provides the perfect opportunity to start a tradition you can incorporate throughout the New Year.
This holiday season provides the perfect opportunity to start a tradition you can incorporate throughout the New Year. By sharing meals together as a family, children learn first-hand what values are important to their family. Even without having to think about it or plan anything, parents are showing their children how to converse with someone in a meaningful way. Children watch as parents ask after each other and help console each other on a rough day or celebrate milestones or achievements. They see how people who care about each other offer support, are polite, gauge the other person to see how they respond, and acquire a host of other important communication skills.
Children who eat dinner with their families learn more about their cultural (what, how, and when they eat), ethnic, and religious beliefs. A study from Emory University shows that children who know a lot about their family history have a closer relationship to family members, higher self-esteem, and a greater sense of control over their lives. This is true even into the teenage years! 71% of teens in a Columbia University study reported that catching up and spending time with family was the best part of family dinners. Research shows that children who eat family meals get better grades, are more motivated, and get along better with others. On the other hand, a 2011 study shows that children who do not have family meals are more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, try drugs, feel depressed, or have trouble at school.
A team of researchers at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health found that even if the family members are not very close to each other, having a meal together as a family reduces the risk for many of these troubling behaviors among youth.
It may take a bit of thinking and rearranging schedules, but family meals provide better outcomes than other after-school activities. So unless your child LOVES those activities, perhaps you could let some of them go. Additionally, meals eaten at home are usually healthier than meals eaten on-the-go, and children are more likely to eat a variety of foods that they prepare with you, not to mention the benefits of learning how to plan a menu and shop for ingredients.
This new practice may take a little getting used to, and depending on your family’s schedules, maybe a different meal would work better for your family. In the end, having a meal together (without the TV or phones at the table) just provides an ideal context to grow together as a family. It’s not surprising that for as long as there have been people, they have celebrated — even brokered peace — by breaking bread together.
About Jana Morgan Herman:
Jana Morgan Herman, MEd, is Director at Kenwood Montessori, a teacher trainer for four Montessori teacher education programs in the US and Asia, and a consultant to parents and schools. AMS Credentialed (3-6).
Forthun, L.F. (2008b). Family nutrition: RECIPE for good communication. Gainesville, FL: Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Publication number: FCS8670. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/FY1060.
Lyttle, J., & Baugh, E. (2008). The importance of family dinners. Gainesville, FL: Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. FY 1054, http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy1054.
Marino, M., & Butkus, Sue (n.d.). Background: Research on family meals. Retrived July 25, 2008, from http://nutrition.wsu.edu/ebet/background.html
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) (2011, Sept.). The importance of family dinners VII. Retrieved December 22, 2011 from http://www.casacolumbia.org/
National Survey of Children’s Health (2007). Available at:http://childhealthdata.org/learn/NSCH
Satter, E. (1987). How to get your kid to eat…but not too much. Palo Alto, CA: Bull Publishing Co.
Weinstein, M. (2005) The Surprising Power of Family Meals. Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press.