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Family Dinner by Rachel Heater, MS

Rachel Heater, MS

An excerpt from Family Therapy Magazine, by Rachel Heater, MS.

Poll results about the family table provide varied results, with some reporting shared family meals still at a high rate (Ferdman, 2014), while others indicate dinnertime is rapidly becoming a dying tradition (Delistraty, 2014). One thing, however, is a certainty: modern families have a litany of hurdles to overcome when it comes to banding together to eat. Factors related to resources such as household income, employment, and the increase in two-parent working families have negatively impacted the family dinner. More so than a parent’s level of education or type of job, one of the greatest barriers to a family meal is a lack of financial resources. For single parents, making a family meal becomes an impossible task when taking into account the cost and time necessary, both of which are scarce given a demanding lifestyle.

According to a study by Pew Research (2016), dual-earner families in 1960 accounted for 25% of American households; by 2015 that number increased to approximately 66% of households with two working parents. Add to this the prevailing expectation to have kids enlisted in after-school activities— sports, religion class, tutoring, dance, or music lessons—all of which pull parents and children away from their homes, intensify the time crunch and increase stress, making dinnertime more like a dreaded chore rather than an anticipated occasion. It’s no wonder take-out, fast food, and frozen pre-packaged meals have become a popular choice for so many families. Moreover, when parents are absent from the home, either at work or overwhelmed with other tasks, children are left in charge of decision making. More often than not, when left to their own devices, the choices children make in deciding what to eat are less than healthy (De Bourdeaudhuij & Van Oost, 1998). Either way, working and married, or single and working, modern families are under a lot of pressure, where work is grueling and the list of tasks is seemingly endless. Stress over dinner is not only occurring outside the home, but at the dinner table as well. After taking into account a long day at work, when the rare moment to come together as family over dinner does occur, modern parents frequently complain of children’s increased use of technology. Whether it’s a television, gaming system, tablet, computer, or cell phone, the use of technology at the dinner table greatly attributes to a negative experience. Even at a restaurant it has become commonplace to see children with tablets or cell phones in hand, earbuds securely wedged in their ears, and eyes fastened to a screen.

Discounting the family meal is a missed opportunity for positive growth. Engaging in a meal, sans technology, has proven protective effects on child and adolescent development; from promoting language, developing patience, turn-taking, waiting, and the opportunity to reconnect and bond with family members through open, ongoing communication (University of Montreal, 2017). While the tradition of the family meal has an established history, researchers are seeking to better understand its role as an intervention strategy because of its “seeming benefit to children’s health and overall wellbeing” (Skeer & Ballard, 2013, p. 943). Researchers best understand the complexity of the family meal within the context of the Ecodevelopmental Theory (Szapocznik & Williams, 2000). This theory proposes that children and adolescents develop and learn within their familial ecosystem, as “it is not possible to disentangle the adolescents’ course of development from the influence of the family, as well as the development of the family as a system from the individuals that comprise it” (Skeer & Ballard, 2013, p. 944). Today, the family meal is uniquely understood as a powerful predictor of family health, both physically and emotionally. Just the presence of parents eating alongside their children is positively associated with greater consumption of fruits and vegetables, greater emotional well-being, and less depression in adolescents (Videon & Manning, 2003).

Family dinners provide both parents and children opportunities to incorporate healthier eating habits. Healthier eating habits lead to greater consumption of nutrient-rich foods (vegetables, fruits, proteins), which are necessary for emotional well-being, healthy brain development, and lend to prosocial behavior and life satisfaction (Haghighatdoost et al., 2017). Not only do children benefit emotionally, but their physical health is also dramatically and positively impacted. More than just eating a meal at the same time, the act of coming together around a shared meal has the potential to protect children against a myriad of negative effects. Having just one dinner together a week is beneficial, and the more frequently a family eats together and the more routine is scheduled around dinnertime, the healthier children are (Horning, Fulkerson, Friend, & Neumark-Sztainer, 2016). For instance, five or more dinners a week has been attributed to a lower BMI in children, decreased instances of substance use during adolescence (Eisenberg, Nuemark-Sztainer, Fulkerson, & Story, 2008), and greater satisfaction in school (Haghighatdoost et al., 2017). A thorough analysis of studies on the relationship between family meals and adolescent outcomes revealed that the frequency of the family dinner was associated with lower risk for sexual activity, suicide, bulimia, violence, feelings of depression, and increased commitment to learning, self-esteem, body satisfaction, and increased selfefficacy for healthy eating in various social environments (Harrison et al., 2015). A closer examination into the meaning of food when shared revealed an interesting discovery. Researchers Woolley and Fishbach (2017) wanted to better understand what happens between two strangers who share similar meals, as opposed to eating different meals. For example, sharing a prepared family meal served at home is much different than ordering food at a restaurant.

In the first scenario, each person is likely sharing one large meal, but in the latter, each person orders individually. While each experience provides an opportunity for face-toface interaction, the results of the study found that sharing the same meal increases connection, aids in conflict resolution, and establishes a greater degree of trust between two people as they communicate. The simple act of sharing a meal has the power to forge meaningful relationships, summon fond memories, bind us to others, and can bury anger built up between friends or lovers. The sharing of food is not uniquely a human phenomenon, as even experiments into chimpanzee groups have shown these complex behaviors of sharing possibly assist in reinforcing social bonds, kinship, and enhancing mating opportunities (Silk, Brosnan, Henrich, Lambeth, & Shapiro, 2013). In these ways, food is highly representative of both nurture and nourishment, as it not only fuels our The act of coming together around a shared meal has the potential to protect children against a myriad of negative effects.

Holiday traditions and rituals, from the simple act of sharing a daily meal to the elaborately planned holiday dinner, are brought to life through the preparation and sharing of food. Across the world, food is the ultimate symbolism of family identity, prosperity, and love; deeply rooted, born from generations before, enlivened through a vintage recipe and re-experienced with each meal we share. The logistics of a demanding lifestyle distract families from the traditional family meal, but when the rare opportunity presents itself, take the time to share a meal with your family. Researchers understand the relationship between the family meal and psychosocial outcomes as bi-directional, where it is not quite understood if increased family meals lead to better outcomes, or if healthier families simply engage in more family meals. Either way, the family meal clearly aids in connectedness and strengthens our hearts, minds, and bodies. While it may feel like a daunting task, taking this small opportunity to reconnect with your friends and family over the table has positive implications on your relationship and the future health of your family.