the Dinner Table Ritual
Laurie Tarkan, New York Times, May 3, 2005
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dinner has long been an example of family togetherness. But
recently, scientists have been coming up with compelling reasons
- including a lowered risk of smoking, drinking and doing
illicit drugs among teenagers - for families to pull up a chair
around the table.
The interest in the ritual may have been spurred by concerns
that the number of families who do not dine together is
increasing. According to several surveys, 30 to 40 percent of
families do not eat dinner together five to seven nights a week,
though most families eat dinner together some days a week.
Families with older teenagers eat fewer dinners together than
those with younger children.
The two most common obstacles, parents say, are late working
hours and activities that overlap with mealtime, like soccer
games and Girl Scout meetings.
Many families that do dine together make a concerted effort to
carve out the time. Some spend Sundays cooking meals for the
week, some do prep work the evening before, some use takeout a
couple of nights a week, and many parents of young children
guiltily admit that they could not prepare a dinner if it were
not for the TV, which gets turned on for 30 to 60 minutes while
Parents generally agree that family dinners are vital. According
to one survey, 87 percent of parents say that it is "very
important" or "extremely important" to eat together as a family.
The effort to do just that in a harried world has spawned
hundreds of cookbooks, thousands of recipes on the Internet and
the re-emergence of slow cookers, aimed at busy mothers.
Childhood memories often influence people's opinion about the
importance of family dinners.
Isabel Wurgaft, a member of a group for working mothers in
Millburn, N.J. said: "Growing up, my father got home late, at 8
p.m., but my mother always made us wait to eat as a family no
matter how much we complained. Now that my father has passed
away over 10 years ago, dinner conversations are the strongest
and best memories for me and my sisters."
For others, though, the struggle is apparent. "I feel guilty
because it's supposed to be very important for families to eat
together, but it just doesn't work with our schedule," said
Janette Pazer, another member of the working mothers' group.
"I'd have to leave work an hour early, and try to cook while
they're hanging on me for attention and asking for homework
help, rather than getting my full attention when I get home."
In past eras, the family meal was more of a practicality -
people had to eat, and they turned up at the table, where food
was being served.
"In the contemporary world, we've made an icon of the dinner
hour as a way to hold on to something, otherwise people would go
off in different directions and never get together," said
Barbara Haber, the author of "From Hardtack to Home Fries: An
Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals."
Recent studies have begun to shore up the idea that family
dinners can have an effect.
For example, a 2004 study of 4,746 children 11 to 18 years old,
published in The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine,
found that frequent family meals were associated with a lower
risk of smoking, drinking and using marijuana; with a lower
incidence of depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts; and with
Another study last year, a survey of 12- to 17-year-olds by the
National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia
University, found that teenagers who reported eating two or
fewer dinners a week with family members were more than one and
a half times as likely to smoke, drink or use illegal substances
than were teenagers who had five to seven family dinners.
"We also noticed that the more often teens had dinner with their
parents, the less likely they were to have sexually active
friends, less likely girls were to have boyfriends two years
older, and the less time teens spent with boyfriends or
girlfriends," said Joseph A. Califano Jr., the center's chairman
A study from the University of Minnesota published last year
found that adolescent girls who reported having more frequent
family meals and a positive atmosphere during those meals were
less likely to have eating disorders.
"The family dinner is an important time for families to be
together and talk, it's important for family bonds, having time
together that's not stressful, enjoying each other's company and
being around food," said Dr. Karen Weber Cullen, a behavioral
nutritionist at the Children's Nutrition Research Center at
Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
Family meals, experts say, also offer a predictable routine and
an opportunity for parents to monitor their children's behavior.
"That monitoring has been related to a host of positive physical
and mental health outcomes in children and adolescents," said
Dr. Barbara Fiese, who studies family routines and rituals at
She added that regular family meals also provide an opportunity
to establish a sense of belonging to a family unit.
According to one study, family dinners may help improve the
vocabulary of younger children.
Researchers at Harvard in 1996 looked at the types of activities
that promoted language development. Family dinners were more
important than play, story time and other family events. And
those families that engaged in extended discourse at the dinner
table, like story telling and explanations, rather than
one-phrase comments, like "eat your vegetables," had children
with better language skills, said Dr. Catherine Snow, professor
of education at Harvard and the researcher of the study.
"When there is more than one adult at the table, it tends to
make talk richer, topics are established by adult interest and
can be extremely valuable opportunities for children to learn,"
Dr. Snow said.
A handful of studies have also suggested that eating as a family
improves children's consumption of fruits and vegetables,
grains, fiber and vitamins and minerals. Children who have
family meals also eat less fried food, saturated fat and soda,
But Dr. Leann Birch, who has studied eating habits of children
for more than two decades, said that while the research
indicates that parents act as models for eating, the "data on
the family dinner is pretty weak."
What's available in the household may have a greater impact on
healthier food intake, she said.
With toddlers and preschoolers, it may be more stressful having
them sit at the table for a long meal, she said. "Sitting down
at the family table at the end of a long day with a 1-year-old
and 3-year-old may not be a particularly pleasant experience. In
and of itself, having a family meal without positive
interaction, may not be that important," she said.
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