April 23, 2010
The Family Meal
One of the things that research consistently supports is the value of a family meal. The more often your children sit at the table with you and have a meal together, the better off they are.
When I read some of the early research on this topic, it seemed obvious and biased. When we examine households in which there are two parents, one full-time breadwinner who shows up every night by 6 PM, one full-time homemaker who shops and does child-care and prepares meals, we find certain unsurprising and uninformative things. Relatively low rates of juvenile delinquency, teenage drug use, legal entanglements, and similar social problems. The kids seem to eat healthier, snack less and have a lower rate of obesity.
I was and remain dismissive of this as medically relevant. In so many ways, it’s like surveying people who identify themselves as happy and then announcing that these people have a lower rate of depression than the population in general and a much lower rate of depression than those who have been hospitalized for depression. These mythical households, in which parents live unrealistic lives in unrealistic places with unrealistic children, provide little in the way of helpful insight for those who don’t fit into the constraints of these fantasy family structures. In most places, financial realities have made two incomes essential. Even when it’s not, and perhaps especially when it’s not, the idea that one partner is at home cooking dinner for several hours a day is obsolete. equally unstudied are school and work schedules. Our children, even from the happy and intact families, are busy with their own schedules that include after school sports, tutoring, or jobs. Perhaps because of where I practice, here in Berkeley (but I think this is true most places) it’s tough to make a living from a job you never take home. It’s been hard not to notice, making as many house calls as I do, how often one of the parents isn’t at home. Mostly it’s dad who is still working at 7 or 8 o’clock. But I have often seen kids who are fed and watched and put to bed by dad or grandma since mom won’t get home from work until after the child is asleep.
So I admit that this might seem like a distant dream for many families. But there are a lot of lessons in The Family Meal that go beyond nutrition. Those families from the television-reality of the 1950’s may not have much in common with yours. And it’s no surprise that in these families, teenagers are expected to be home from school before dinner and don’t go out at night. With this level of tight supervision, it is understandably difficult to imagine them getting into trouble. There’s also little opportunity for stopping for a cheeseburger on the way home instead of dinner with the family. No chance for snacking, drinking, or other unhealthy activities.
I have intentionally painted this lifestyle as repressive and restrictive. That’s the way your teenager is likely to see it. After all, their friends get to do these things. And that feeling of imprisonment is a universal one at this developmental stage. They know what they are able to do, and this doesn’t match what their parents are able to allow them to do. But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I advised ignoring some of this research.
I don’t think the research adequately explains why kids with more family meals are less likely to be obese. Maybe the reduced time outside of the house, eating fast food less often is an explanation. Maybe the increased parental supervision contributes something. Maybe it’s something deeper.
Think about the last binge you had—whatever constitutes a binge for you. Did you do it sitting down at a table of people? Maybe kids who would eat particularly badly feel this same social restraint. So if they get a family dinner every night, even if it’s hot dogs and mashed potatoes, and even if they have two helpings, they won’t be having 7 or 8 portions. Even if they could sneak out, the sense of fullness probably will short-circuit the impulse to binge, which happens more often when we miss meals.
Think about the last good dinner you had with someone else, or a group of people. What made it good? The most fabulous chef can’t make food good enough to provide satisfaction and enjoyment from time spent with bickering unfriendly people. Normal family and sibling interactions are not, realistically, going to lead to peaceful supportive conversations at every meal. But the dependability of the meal, day after day—or even week after week—will provide its own important support. Think of it this way. You are on a team. Sometimes it’s competitive, and sometimes you need to work together. Sometimes you will win and sometimes you’ll lose—and some of those times, you feel that you’ve lost very unfairly. But you keep showing up for practice, keep showing up for games. And your coach is always available, whether encouraging you or pointing out your mistakes. I think the family dinner is like this. Sometimes a child will be sulking and quiet, or quick to anger. And nobody should be forced, somehow, to do this. But the dependability of that dinner is crucial. They can invite a friend to join. That may seem easy, but it’s an impossible social step if everyone in the family eats at different times, in different places. So it’s easy for a child to ask a classmate to come over for dinner if your child knows in advance when and where that dinner will take place. If they don’t do this, when will you meet and get to know your child’s friends? This is an easy, natural way to do this important task.
Most important of all, the family meal is the place to show your children that you’re interested in them and their lives, their schoolwork, friends, and news. Please, no interrogations. Don’t go around the table as I have sometimes seen and make each child complete some checklist you have created for them. Tell me one thing that happened in school today or something like that. If the child is always saying that nothing happened and that they have no homework and nothing is new, you need to reach out in a better way. Maybe over the dinner table isn’t the ideal venue for many types of conversation. But when parents repeatedly express interest in their children and the lives of their children, it’s probably a good thing. Maybe it will convince some of those kids that their parents really care about them. Maybe it will help them care about themselves. Maybe it will help a few of them eat healthier.