Family dinners: How satisfying are they, really?

While many of us are still digesting barbecue from Wednesday, it might be a good time to re-examine the worth of family meals.


(Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

They have been credited with everything from protecting young psyches to preventing adolescent drug use and depression.

Yet, in reality, the evening gatherings are tough to pull off. Parents often work or endure commutes that prevent them from making it home in time. Kids have practices that pull them away in the evening.

When the inevitable happens, and a family meal turns into one or two members dining with a few empty settings at the table, parents often beat themselves up for missing what we’ve come to believe is the single most important family event of the day.

But researchers publishing in a recent issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family have cast doubt on some of our assumptions about that sacred dinner.

The study authors examined data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health and did find an association between adolescent health and regular family dinners.

However, when they controlled for other family behaviors, such as parental help with homework and regular communication, the distinctions began to disappear.

As for long-lasting health benefits, the researchers found that regular family dinners are about as important as a generally supportive and communicative atmosphere.

In other words, family dinners are part of a bigger picture and not, unto themselves, a cure-all.

Lead author, Kelly Musick, an associate professor at Cornell, told me she hopes the research might help parents relax a bit.

“We set out to understand whether there were unique benefits of the family dinner above and beyond other aspects of the family environment. If schedules are too crazy or it becomes a chore, I think an ‘out’ on dinner might be helpful.

“But then it’s important to carve out some other time of the day or week to connect with your kids — parental time and engagement matter.”

As for her own family, the mother of two said “[I] try to get us all around the table, but it just doesn’t happen every night. When it does, we turn off phones, sit down, and try to make it matter.”

Do you try to have dinner together nightly? If not, how else do you connect with family?

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