A new ten-year study from The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University shows that children who eat meals with their families frequently (five times per week or more) are half as likely to try marijuana or smoke cigarettes as their friends who rarely get to sit down and dine with the fam.
While this seems like common sense, it may be a much-needed wake up call for parents with busy lives who have not made family mealtime a priority. Only half of Americans say that they eat meals with their families at all; for adults the impact is minimized but children desperately need the routine and structure which not only feeds the body, but the mind and soul as well.
Family meals have many other benefits besides keeping kids on the straight and narrow:
- Dining together helps to develop language and social skills. Children learn how to interact politely and discuss a range of issues during family conversation.
- Children involved in family mealtime will learn how to cook and clean up after themselves, a skill set that many adults today do not have – which leads them to depend on fatty and unhealthy takeout food for their sustenance.
- Eating meals together strengthens the family unit. Families are a micro-culture unto themselves, and the communal experience of mealtime helps to generate a feeling of belonging to the group. This feeling is crucial for children and gives the whole family an opportunity to better share their lives with one another.
- Other studies have also shown a correlation between eating with the family and better performance at school as well as a reduced likelihood of unhealthy weight control practices such as anorexia and bulimia.
Most of all, providing healthy meals together on a regular basis shows children that they are cared for on one of the most basic levels: sustenance. If children are routinely served non-nutritious junk food in the car, bowls of cereal alone by the TV or worse – nothing at all – they will begin to feel that no one really cares about them (who could blame them?). Childhood obesity can also result, which eventually translates into a host of adult health problems.
How many meals must a family spend together to reap the positive effects as shown in the study? At least five times per week. Once the family dinner frequency drops to less than three times per week, researchers saw a huge spike in risky behavior of the children.
Providing a healthy meal at least five times a week has never been easy, but with the advent of modern work schedules and two-income households, making time for the family dinner is more difficult than ever. However, it is also more important than ever, for your children’s future health might depend on it. Eating meals together is a great way to stop behavior problems before they start.
Good families don’t just happen – they are cultivated, like a garden. Just like a garden, your family needs regular food, water and emotional sunshine, and family dinners help to provide all three. Here are some tips to get on family meal track:
- Plan your meals out at the beginning of the week to decrease the effort, energy and time required to cook. Sunday’s chili can become Tuesday’s burritos and then can top off the hotdogs (or Smartdogs) on Thursday night, making for easy family recipes.
- A crock-pot can be an immense help to a busy family – throw in your melange of veggies and protein in the morning, and they will be done by dinnertime. Plus the crock-pot makes it easy to skim unwanted grease off the top of the dish making for a healthier meal.
- If you simply don't have the time, take advantage of pre-made items. Pre-sliced vegetables, deli salads and rotisseries chickens cost a little more, but if a few extra dollars amounts to a meal together with your family, it's worth it.
- Ask for help when you need it. Don’t get sucked into the martyr syndrome and insist on doing everything yourself. If you are married, get your partner to help out, and the kids can get in on it too!
- Order takeout. While usually not the healthiest option, takeout foods can provide a quick and easy meal together when all other options fail.
- Set a weekly night based around a food that your family loves: Tuesday taco night, Saturday spaghetti dinner or Friday night pizza. Make it a fun, relaxing night that the whole family can look forward to.
Family dinnertime is not about elaborate meals, but rather about spending some time together and reconnecting lives. Make mealtime a priority with your family and you will give your children the structure, community, life skills and feeling of belonging that they need to thrive.