“All great change in America begins at the dinner table.”
These words are credited to Ronald Reagan, although it is likely that others have expressed similar sentiments. The meaning of the sentence is that the family meal is where children develop the intellectual and emotional skills to become moral, productive citizens. Study after study confirms this almost magical phenomenon. The key is the regularity of such meals.
The value of the family meal begins in the preschool years.A 1994 Louis Harris poll found that preschoolers who have dinner with their family more than four times a week have better language skills than preschoolers who have a family dinner three or less times a week. This advantage is due to a greater exposure to spoken language and the opportunity to process adult conversation. The same study also discovered that elementary students and teens performed at a higher academic level than their meal-deficient peers.The results were the same regardless of race, and the researchers found that the number of family meals per week was a better indication of student achievement than the number of parents in the family.
A 1997 study by Drs. Bowden and Zeisz revealed that teens who ate with the family more than five times a week were better adjusted. Compared to children who rarely had family meals, these young people were “less likely to do drugs or be depressed, were more motivated at school, and had better relationships.” The key was that the family meal provided essential communication and stability. A 2003 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) found that teens who have family dinners less than twice a week are twice as likely to take drugs, have greater stress and boredom, and are more inclined to perform poorly in school.
An additional interesting finding of the CASA study is that most teens actually would prefer having more dinners with their families. Freelance journalist Miriam Weinstein, author of The Surprising Power of Family Meals, believes that many parents are far too ready to believe that their teen children do not want to spend time with them. Weinstein writes, “We’ve sold ourselves on the idea that teenagers are obviously sick of their families, that they’re bonded to their peer group. We’ve taken it to an extreme. We’ve taken it to mean that a teenager has no need for his family. And that’s just not true.” She is very critical of parents who blame their teens for destroying family meal time. In fact, she refers to them as “co- conspirators” who are unwilling to arrange schedules so that the family can be together around the table.
Another benefit of the regular family meal is improved nutrition. Children eat more vegetables and fruit and drink more fruit juices instead of soda. They eat less fatty foods and get more vitamins, minerals, and fibre in their diet. Robin Fox, an anthropologist from Rutgers University, makes a dramatic claim about the family meal: “If it were just about food, we would squirt it into their mouths with a tube . . . A meal is about civilizing children. It’s about teaching them to be a member of their culture.”
But, of course, the problem is that far too many families do not have meals together, or if they do, there is very little conversation taking place. One study reveals that 50% percent of families have a television on somewhere in the house during dinner. One third of families actually eat in front of the television. In such scenarios, meaningful family interaction is virtually non-existent.
During the past thirty years, regular family dinners have decreased by at least 30%. With both parents working, with school sports and extracurricular activities taking up enormous chunks of time, many children eat by themselves or with peers. So how do they develop the skills so necessary to succeed in life that the family meal once provided? The answer is easy: They don’t. And our nation suffers because of it.
It can’t be that bad, you say? Consider this: Michigan State University and the University of Kansas coach students on how they should act when invited to a business lunch. Two of the topics covered are how to pass the salt and pepper and what to do if one does not like the food being served. I rest my case.