Uncovering the importance of the family meal.

Uncovering the importance of the family meal.

They hardly look like radicals, but nearly 400 Minneapolis parents did something revolutionary recently: they pledged to eat meals with their families at least four nights a week. (see helpful tips to get your family to eat together)

"Funny, isn't it, that you're being countercultural these days when you sit down to dinner?" muses William Doherty, Ph.D., director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota.

With pressures on parents to churn out high-achieving kids by loading them up with extracurriculars, says Doherty, opting out of these activities in favor of family dinner "means going against the norm." In fact, national surveys suggest that only about a third of American families usually eat dinner together.

Ironically, family meals might do more for children's well-being and achievement than any soccer program or French-immersion class. When Doherty's colleagues at the university's Center for Adolescent Health and Development surveyed 4,746 Minneapolis/St. Paul middle school and high school students for Project EAT (Eating Among Teens), they found that the kids who sat down to meals most often with their families-seven or more times weekly-tended to have higher grade-point averages and were more well-adjusted in general than those who ate the fewest family meals (two or fewer per week). They were less likely to feel depressed or suicidal, to smoke cigarettes or use alcohol or marijuana-even when the researchers factored out issues like race, family structure and social class. "Family meals were a potentially protective factor in these kids' lives almost across the board," declares epidemiologist and study co-author Diane Neumark-Sztainer.

What's more, children who eat regular meals with their families also eat more healthfully, according to Project EAT and other studies-in general, taking in more fruits and vegetables and calcium-rich foods, fewer soft drinks and snack foods. They may also have a lower risk of disordered eating: Neumark-Sztainer and her colleagues noted fewer reports of extreme weight-loss diets or binge eating in kids whose families placed a high priority on regular family meals. "The associations were especially strong among girls," she noted.

Why are family meals so powerful? For one, they give parents an opportunity to model good eating habits-and to show kids what a "normal" meal might look like (unlike the French fries/hot dog/soft drink combo they might otherwise choose). And parents are better able to spot potential eating problems.

Mealtimes are also critical for connecting, says Doherty. "It's one of the few opportunities families have to be together as a group, sharing in conversation," he says. "We all have a biological need to eat and a social need to eat together."

This need for connection doesn't end when kids enter the "my parents are so lame" teen years, adds Neumark-Sztainer. "When we asked them, kids told us they wanted to spend more time eating with their families, not less."

Studies like Project EAT have given fuel to a grassroots movement to make communities more family-meal friendly. Minnesota's Putting Family First, as well as Ready, Set, Relax! in Ridgewood, New Jersey, sponsor initiatives like an annual "Family Night" where sports practices, evening classes and even homework are canceled to allow families a free evening together.

5 Tips for family meals:

  • Keep trying. If you're not used to regular dinners, expect some initial awkwardness. "Like exercise, the benefits will accrue only if you stick with it," says William Doherty.
  • Get help. Kids can help plan, cook, serve and clean up after meals; they'll be more game to participate if they have a stake in the meal.
  • Speak out. If soccer practice or a PTA meeting is scheduled during dinner time, ask if it can be changed. "We need to be home for dinner" is a perfectly acceptable excuse.
  • No time to cook family dinner? Try breakfast or lunch, use take-out or go to a restaurant.
  • Keep conflicts off the table. Focus more on conversation than on table manners or whether your child finishes her peas.