There is a good chance that you have heard this before. It's better to sit down and eat as a family together around the dining room table. Perhaps your parents told you or perhaps you thought it was just a tradition of yesteryear that served no real benefit. There have been several studies in recent years that show that family dining is so much more than just a tradition. It is something that offers significant benefits to every family member. Lets look at several of those benefits and studies you will see why this topic has never been more relevant than it is today.
Feeling Safe and a Sense of Belonging
Children crave safety and stability. They will not tell you that. Depending upon their age, they may not even be consciously aware of it. But they'll notice when it's not there and tell you in their behavior.
Your kids may also not show any need to be part of a group. Many would prefer to sit in their room watching TV, playing video games or playing on their phone all day. If it is ever removed, those same kids miss the family structure and communal atmosphere of a family dinner even if they never seemed to appreciate it when it was there.
Not only does the act of regular family dining make children of all ages feel safer, it also makes them feel like they are part of a group. This, in turn, helps in their development of interpersonal skills. In other words, your kids are learning from an early age how to get along with others. They learn how to ask politely when they want something and they learn how to just sit back and listen when appropriate.
Family + Dinner = Smarter Kids
No, we're not talking about quizzing your kids on general knowledge subjects or getting them to read a dictionary while they eat – just the simple act of conversation has a dramatic effect on younger children. According to research on this subject, having conversations around the dinner table with your family increases the vocabulary of children at a higher rate than reading a book to them.
All of this happens organically, without trying to force the issue. Even during the times when adults are having a conversation among themselves while seated at the table with their family. These side conversations can spark curiosity in the mind of a child as they hear new words and ideas. It also providing them with examples of how storytelling works and just the general back and forth of how people talk. The research showed that more sophisticated words are learned during dinner table discussions than with the words learned from a story book at a rate of about 7 to 1.
Having a larger vocabulary at a younger age leads to reading with greater ease at an younger age. This, in turn, helps in educational reading materials as well as fictional stories that help to develop their sense of fantasy, playfulness, and creativity.
Older children and even young adults can benefit from having regular family meals together. Another study found that eating together regularly as a family is a good predictor of a teenager's performance in school. It was even a stronger predictor than extra hours at school, working on artistic projects, or finishing homework assignments.
This one is not just for our kids. In a survey from 2015 by Pew Research Center, it was reported that 88 percent of US adults believe it is "generally not OK" to use a cellphone during a family dinner.
The survey didn't get in to specifics, but it's safe to assume that the respondents would feel similarly about a tablet or other gadget at the table. It's all a distraction and it takes away from the communal experience of what is happening in that moment.
It is worth noting and probably won't come as much of a surprise to anyone, that younger adults are more likely to feel that it's fine to use a cellphone during a family dinner. However, it's not by as much as you may think – only 16 percent of respondents aged 18-29 felt it was appropriate, compared to 11 percent of those aged 50-64.
Lower Rate of Substance Abuse
This is probably something that you don't always want to think about, but it's an important issue. We all hope that our children will never smoke, participate in underage drinking or do drugs. The reality is though, they will most likely be around it at some point and the temptation may be there.
In one particular study on the importance of family dinners from The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, they say children are at the root of most of the drug problems in the US. This may sound harsh at first, but they explain that if a child makes it past 21 years of age without abusing drugs or alcohol, they will almost certainly never do so in the future.
So, what does that have to do with eating meals together as a family? Surely those kids could just sneak off after dinner and do whatever they're going to do, right? They could, of course, but that's not the point. This study by CASA states that teenagers who have fewer than three family dinners per week are three and a half times more prone to abusing prescription drugs and other illegal drugs, three times more prone to using marijuana, two and a half times more prone to smoking cigarettes, and one and a half times more prone to drinking alcohol.
It's Simply Comforting
You don't know what you've got until it is gone. As a parent, our job is to put ourselves out of a job and your kids will eventually leave home. Whether they are going off to college or getting their own place, this won't last forever. Now is your chance to give them the comfort they need and to receive it in return. This is also your opportunity to pass on valuable family traditions and culture that they will pass on to their own kids one day.
It's Tasty, Cheaper and Healthier
According to USDA statistics, the cost of eating "food away from home" went up by 2.2 percent from June 2016 to June 2017. During that same period, the cost of eating "food at home" went down by 0.1 percent. This may not sound like a lot, but when the trend continues as it has, year after year, the discrepancy between eating out and eating at home becomes more of an issue.
However, all of the statistics in the world can't replace good old fashioned pen and paper. Just try it for a week. Keep track of how much you spend on eating out and compare it to how much you spend on ingredients for your home cooked meals.
Meals that are not cooked at home are almost always higher in fat, salt, sugar, and calories. This tends to be common knowledge. Aside from having greater control over the health of the food that your family is eating, the health benefits of home cooked meals go much further. In a study chronicled by the NIH (National Institutes of Health) it is reported that girls who never or rarely ate dinner with family were more likely to have unhealthy relationships with food and diet. For example, girls aged 9 to 14 were more likely to binge eat, purge, and frequently go on crash diets. Boys were also more likely to show the same behaviors, but at a lower rate than the girls.
As you can see, there are plenty of reasons to take the time to gather together as a family and share a meal. Your dining table can become the backdrop to great food and wonderful memories that are carried forward into tomorrow, next week and years to come.
You don't need to have to be a grand ballroom with chandeliers and candelabras or a dining table big enough to feed the entire neighborhood to eat together. You just need a nice and inviting dining area. It helps to be physically comfortable of course, with comfortable dining chairs that will help everyone relax and unwind from their day. It also helps to be aesthetically comfortable with decent lighting and a lack of clutter.