Come to the table!

A number of years ago Dan Kindlon, an educational psychologist, author and former faculty member at Harvard University, wrote a book entitled Too Much Of A Good Thing. Among other value insights, Kindlon explains in the book that his research indicated that one of the most influential differences between students who excelled in school and citizenship and those who misbehaved and struggled academically is that the families of the exceptional students regularly ate dinner together. Interesting that the fundamental ingredient of raising exceptional children might be something so simple, isn’t it?

Earlier this month HealthDay News posted an article reporting on a University of Minnesota study on family meals. Researches found that “positive, calm and friendly family meals might help a child avoid becoming overweight or obese.” It has been recognized for a while that regular family meals can reduce the risk of childhood obesity, so researchers decided to find out why, and to determine “whether some family meals might have a more positive effect than others.”

Their findings indicate that “Normal-weight children were more likely to have family meals during which parents offered encouraging statements and everyone seemed to enjoy each other’s company,” while obesity was connected to negativity at meal times. Healthy children also eat together with their family at focused meal settings more regularly than obese children. The study found that “30 percent of meals for overweight kids occurred in the family room, compared to 17 percent for healthy-weight children. On the other hand, 80 percent of the meals of healthy-weight kids occurred in the kitchen, compared with 55 percent for overweight children.” In other words, the actual act of eating has some merit, but the activity, behavior and conversation that accompanies the meal are significantly more important. When a family eats in the family room, for example, they are far more likely to be watching television while they eat, which means they are unlikely to be talking to each other or checking on how each other’s day went. Eating the family room to watch a movie or a favorite show can be fun, but if it becomes the routine it will diminish the health value associated with eating together.

Eating together does not need to be an elaborate production, either. While I would suggest that sitting down at the table together is valuable, it matters little whether you’re dining on fine china or paper plates. It also matters very little what you are eating (within reason, of course) or how long you spend eating it. The average length of a family meal for healthy-weight children was only 18.2 minutes. Jerica Berge, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, said, “When we looked at the logistics around the family meals, they are more doable than most people think. They don’t have to be that long to have a positive effect, and they can be any time of the day — breakfast, lunch or dinner.”

The connections between well-behaved and highly accomplished children (identified by Kindlon), healthy children (identified in the U of M study) and family dining are similar. Said Berge, family dining “gives the kid a sense of security in the world, and the sense that the kid can regulate their lives.” Children who are secure are certainly going to be more likely to succeed in school and to be meaningful, productive members of their community. Parents eating with their children can also serve as role models for healthy eating, including proper portions and proper diet (not to mention proper manners).

The presence of a “screen” during dining–whether television, cell phone, computer or video game–did not impact the health of the children in the study. In fact, approximately 60% of families of both overweight and healthy weight children had a screen on during meal times. I would suggest that eliminating the screen during most meals would add even more to the value of family meals but that is purely my opinion; I have no scientific evidence to support it. While the presence of a screen seemed not to matter, though, the study found that the presence of something else did matter–a second parent. The healthy-weight children were more likely to have both parents present at mealtime. “It could be helping keep the chaos under control, or it could be extra modeling, but it did make a difference,” Berge said. Both are possible–even probable. Probably, however, it made a difference because when two parents are present the security and stability in the home is usually increased.

“One has to ponder, if a mother and father have the intention of having a family meal, you can almost say the next idea of that is they are going to be better parents in general,” said Melinda Sothern, chair of health promotion at the Louisiana State University School of Public Health. “It’s much easier to drive through a fast-food window, or place the children in front of the TV with a frozen meal.” In other words, family meals are indicative of good parenting in general, which is why there is an association between family mealtimes and healthy, successful children. I am not suggesting that good parents never miss a family meal, never let the family eat in the family room and never eat at McDonald’s. But I am suggesting that what may seem like little things matter when it comes to parenting our children. So make the effort, and take the time, to eat meals together, as a family, at the table. Our children are worth it.