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Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008 10:58 pm

The family meal

Eating together makes a difference

Untitled Document It was something everyone had in common. We’d gathered last summer for a conference on “Food Memories.” Everyone was interested in preserving and promoting local foods and their traditions against the onslaught of industrial agriculture and mass-produced prefab food, but our backgrounds were diverse. There were wealthy people for whom promoting sustainable food was philanthropy. There were successful and not-so-successful food professionals. Some were parents who simply wanted the best for their children. Some had been involved their whole lives; for others it was a late-in-life transformation. There was a thirtysomething Korean-American who manages a farmers’ market in one of Milwaukee’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods. But what we all shared was a tradition of regular family meals. It wasn’t a surprise. Until recently, routinely sitting down to meals with the family was the norm. For several decades, however, the family meal has become more and more rare as the pace and pressures of modern life have become more frenetic. Two-career households, kids with a bewildering array of activities, and other distractions, coupled with the ease and availability of fast food, seemed poised to bring the family meal — sitting around the table together on a regular basis as opposed to a special occasion or holiday event — to the edge of extinction. In the 1980s, though, researchers studying family sociological trends and patterns began to realize that there is something extraordinarily beneficial about the family meal, especially for children. In fact, regular family meals are a magic bullet: Children whose families eat together regularly are substantially more likely to do better in school and to have healthier diets, and they’re far less likely to smoke, do drugs, become depressed, have sex prematurely, fall victim to eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia, be obese, or consider suicide. The benefits of regular family meals were clear. What was less clear was why they were beneficial. Was it because families who ate together routinely were more stable anyway, so that family meals were an effect rather than a cause? Initially that seemed to be the logical answer; researchers speculated that children who regularly eat with their families probably have less unsupervised time and consequently fewer opportunities to get into trouble.
There’s more to it than that, however. University of Minnesota researchers tried to answer the cause-and-effect question by looking at “family connectedness,” a sociological term that describes a family’s psychological health. Their research concluded that whether the family was troubled was less important (in terms of the above benefits) than whether the family ate together regularly. A study published in 2004 in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine confirmed those results: It revealed that even after family connectedness was controlled for, children who sat down to seven or more family meals weekly were far less likely to smoke or use drugs or alcohol than were those who only had one or none.
In 2005, after almost a decade of gathering data, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University published an in-depth study of family eating patterns. The Columbia researchers confirmed previous findings and also noted that family meals essentially get better with practice: The less often a family eats together, the less extensive the benefits. If a family eats together less than three times a week, the food isn’t as healthy and, subjects report, there isn’t much conversation. Kids from those families are more than twice as likely as kids who sit down to more frequent family meals to say there’s a lot of tension among family members. They’re also much less likely to think that their parents are proud of them.
So does having regular family meals mean a return to a Father Knows Best scenario — mom in a dress, pearls, and an apron serving dinner to a waiting table of polite children and a husband in suit and tie? Not at all. In fact, according to the most recent University of Minnesota study [focused on healthy eating], published last October in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, it doesn’t even matter much if the family is eating together around the TV. Families did eat somewhat healthier meals if they weren’t in front of the TV, but the difference wasn’t nearly as great as the researchers had expected. The biggest enemy of healthy eating in kids was eating alone; children to eat alone consume fewer fruits, vegetables, and calcium-rich foods and more soft drinks and snack/fast foods. Even if the dinner is takeout pizza, the study’s authors found, when the family eats together it’s more likely that they’ll also make a salad or even just set out carrot and celery sticks to munch on. Watching TV together can even be beneficial if it brings together sullen teenagers and parents or quarreling family members, giving them a common focus beyond their immediate grievances. Enlisting kids to help prepare and clean up provides valuable lessons, too. Children are more likely to eat food that they’ve had a part in preparing, and it builds self-esteem and fosters a sense of compromise and shared responsibility. Family meals don’t even have to be dinner. Those with evening work or commitments may be able to eat breakfast together instead. That was the case with Jonathan Yardley, a Washington Post writer. Yardley’s father, a boarding-school headmaster, had to be in the school dining room for lunch and dinner. Breakfasts, Yardley wrote in a 2005 review, “ were [the] regular, routine occasions at which we gathered as a family and functioned as a family: exchanging the trivial news of our lives, hearing tales about ancestors long since dead and relatives in far away places, picking up bits and pieces of informal but invaluable education.”
Robin Fox, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, agreed in a June 2006 article in Time magazine: “A meal is about civilizing children. It’s about teaching them to be a member of their culture.” Fox believes that something precious was lost when cooking came to be seen as drudgery and meals as discretionary and argues that “making food is a sacred event. It’s so absolutely central — far more central than sex. You can keep a population going by having sex once a year, but you have to eat three times a day.” Because food is so easy and cheap, we’ve lost the realization of its importance. When people had to grow their own food and battle against weather and predators, meals were an occasion for gratitude — perhaps even why the custom of saying grace before a meal originated. “It’s like the American Indians,” Fox says. “When they killed a deer, they said a prayer over it. That is civilization. It is an act of politeness over food. Fast food has killed this. We have reduced eating to sitting alone and shoveling it in. There is no ceremony in it.”
Miriam Weinstein, author of The Surprising Power of Family Meals, believes that kids want the experience of eating together as a family. “We’ve sold ourselves on the idea that teenagers are obviously sick of their families, that they’re bonded to their peer group. We’ve taken it to an extreme,” she said in the June 2006 Time article. “We’ve taken it to mean that a teenager has no need for his family. And that’s just not true.” She feels that parents who hustle their kids off to a mind-numbing array of extracurricular activities may not understand that those activities are less valuable to children than time spent talking to Mom and Dad around the table. The authors of the Columbia study concurred, finding that most teens who ate three or fewer family meals per week wished that they did so more often.
It doesn’t have to be a radical transformation. “I would put the emphasis on just looking at where your family is now and seeing what you can do to improve,” said Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, one of the lead Minnesota researchers, in an October 2007 article in The New York Times. “I think many people just don’t realize how important the family meal really is.”

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