Each year, more than 9 in 10 Americans gather around the table with family and friends for Thanksgiving. But only 50 percent of us eat with our family on a regular basis. That’s too bad. Twenty years of research has shown that family dinners are great for the brain (enhancing preschool vocabulary and raising test scores), body (improving cardiovascular health in teens and lowering the odds of obesity) and spirit (reducing rates of behavioral problems, stress and substance abuse). But in extolling the virtues of the family dinner, we may have obscured what the meal is actually about and why it serves parents and children. In that gap lies a thick stew of myths.
1. Teens don’t want to eat with their parents.
A sullen teenager at the table is a common pop-culture trope. And for some families, it’s reality. One Time magazine writer complained about “the deep world-weariness my older daughter has begun bringing with her to meals, one that, if she’s feeling especially 13-ish, squashes even the most benign conversational gambit.” For this reason, he said, he’d rather eat alone with his wife.
Yet the scientific literature paints a different picture. Most teens value their relationships with their parents. This is true at the dinner table, as well. About 80 percent of teenagers say they’d rather have dinner with their families than by themselves.
Teens say dinnertime is when they’re most likely to talk to their parents. And having a nightly opportunity to connect offers a seat belt on the potholed road of adolescence. This connection may explain why family dinners are associated with a host of behaviors parents hope for: lower rates of tobacco use, teenage pregnancy, depression, anxiety and eating disorders.
2. Family dinners are anti-feminist.
Historically, women have borne the brunt of family dinner prep, and many worry that the burden continues to fall mostly on them. As Slate put it, “The stress that cooking puts on people, particularly women, may not be worth the trade-off.” And as one mom wrote on Baby Center: “Dinner with my family stresses me out.”
But embracing family dinners doesn’t have to mean conjuring a vision of June Cleaver in her spotless 1950s kitchen. Today, men are far more likely to help. Between 1965 and 2008, men nearly doubled their time spent cooking, and 42 percent of men now cook. Of course, disparities remain, but family dinners provide an opportunity to move toward more gender equity. Just as women can “lean in” at work, men can “lean in” at home.
Some studies also show that finding time to eat with family helps working mothers, in particular, reduce the tension and strain of long days at the office.
3. Family dinners depend on a homemade meal.
Homemade meals are usually healthier and lower in fats, salt, sugar and calories than store-bought alternatives. But more important than what you eat is the opportunity to engage with your children and learn about their day-to-day lives. Dinner is also a prime time to tell stories about family members — love stories, acts of derring-do, immigration tales and silly anecdotes about mishaps. Kids who know their family stories are more resilient and have higher self-esteem.
In truth, watching TV during dinner is much more detrimental than sharing the occasional take-out meal with your kids.
4. Families don’t have time to pull it off.
In my work with families, lack of time is the top reason families give for not eating together more often. Kids and parents alike feel rushed, stretched by hectic schedules and exhausted by screens that keep us tethered to work around the clock.
It is true that the share of low-income youth who regularly ate meals with their families dropped from 47 percent to 39 percent between 1999 and 2010. For these families, erratic work schedules can make setting mealtimes especially challenging. Tight budgets also make it harder for low-income parents to buy fresh fruits and veggies.
But not every American family is struggling to have dinner together. During the same period, other families started eating together more — the percentage of adolescents in the highest socioeconomic bracket who shared regular meals with their families rose from 56 percent to 61 percent. This disparity is alarming.
Further, families don’t need to gather at the table every night to reap the benefits. Most studies have found that eating together five times a week, which could include breakfast or even a snack, can yield positive benefits.
5. Food fights make family dinners impossible.
Many parents shy away from family meals because they don’t think they can make a meal everyone will eat, and they don’t relish arguing with their kids about it.
Getting children to eat healthfully doesn’t need to be complicated or hard. And tactics like bribing, cajoling and tricking may create more food aversions than they prevent. Research shows that when parents say, “Eat your squash, and then you can have a dish of ice cream,” they produce a double negative — the child’s desire for the reward food increases as the appeal of the squash plummets. No better is the common practice of saying, “Eat your peas and you’ll be a better soccer player.” Kids assume that if peas have one benefit, like making them stronger, they can’t have another, like tasting good.
Studies have shown that the best way to avoid food fights isn’t by forcing kids to eat — it’s for parents to model good eating habits and introduce a wide variety of foods before age 4, when children are more open to them. Tactile play, such as having kids smear oil on vegetables for roasting, has also been shown to reduce food aversions in children. And, finally, kids crave familiarity, so nutritionists offer the rule of 15: Keep presenting a new food up to 15 times until it is no longer novel.