New Study Says The “Family Dinner” Is Overrated — My Thoughts

by Bettina Elias Siegel on July 3, 2012

In recent years we’ve heard that gathering regularly for a family dinner has all kinds of beneficial effects on our children, from improved academic performance to a lower incidence of drug use. But in a piece in last Sunday’s New York Times, two researchers challenge those claims.

Their study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, looked at data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, a survey of about 18,000 teens, to analyze whether the frequency of family dinners had any impact on three factors: depressive symptoms, substance abuse and what the researchers called “delinquency.” The study’s findings:

. . . only the effect of family dinners on teen depressive symptoms held up. There was no effect on drug and alcohol use or delinquency. . . .

[W]e [also] looked at whether family dinners in the teenage years had effects that persisted into young adulthood. Again, evidence for benefits was thin. We found no direct, lasting effects of family dinners on mental health, drug and alcohol use or delinquency.

While those conclusions might surprise some people, I’ve never bought into the idea that simply sitting down to dinner magically prevents drug use; rather, I’ve always assumed that regular family dinners must correlate with other factors which impact kids favorably, like tighter familial bonds, higher income levels (in that a family dinner is easier to pull off if one spouse stays at home) and possibly higher education. And the study backs up my hunch:

. . . without controlling for such factors [quality of family relationships, activities spent with a parent, level of parental monitoring, and family resources], we found that 73 percent of adolescents who seldom ate with their families (twice per week) reported drug and alcohol use, compared with 55 percent of those who ate with their families regularly (seven days a week). But controlling for these factors, the gap was cut in half, from 18 percentage points to 9.

The authors ultimately believe it’s not dinner per se that matters so much, but the amount of time parents engage meaningfully with their children, and mealtimes are just one setting where such interaction can take place. That conclusion rings true to me, so should we all chuck our frying pans in favor of eating on the fly, in front of the TV or in the back of the car?

I still think the answer to that question is a resounding “no.”

For one thing, the researchers looked only at the three factors of depression, drug use and delinquency, but there are many other behaviors which are likely improved by regular family dinners, from a child’s eating habits to table manners to conversational skills.

We also know that when family dinners aren’t the norm, the resulting void is often filled by the least nutritious foods such as take-out and fast food, and it’s no secret that restaurants make liberal use of fat, sugar, sodium and large portion sizes to keep us coming back for more. (For a great exposé on those practices, check out former FDA Commissioner David Kessler’s The End of Overeating). Indeed, last summer I told you about a study which found that American children now get more of their calories from food prepared outside the home than ever before, with a resulting increase in caloric intake.

Finally, when no one in the home is preparing dinner on at least a semi-regular basis, it seems far less likely that kids will pick up basic cooking skills, skills which are no longer taught in schools and which are critical if we want our kids to consume whole, fresh foods in later life.

But even apart from these practical concerns, there’s something intangible — but still profoundly important — that’s communicated to kids when the entire family sits down for a meal: a sense of stability, a comforting predictability and the implicit understanding that one is being cared for both physically and emotionally. These benefits of breaking bread together couldn’t be better described than in this moving essay, one I happened to spot over my morning coffee in today’s New York Times Health section.

Written by Dawn Lerman, a health and nutrition consultant, the essay describes how the author’s 450-pound father careened from one fad diet to another throughout her childhood, serving her the same ” calorie-free astronaut mystery powders” and diet sodas he was consuming. Meanwhile, Lerman’s mother

never understood what the big deal with food was and ate only one small meal a day while standing up and chatting on the phone. She had no interest in preparing food. Most of our meals consisted of my dad’s diet foods, a meal replacement shake, a frozen dinner, or a bagel or pizza in the car. We never had meals together as a family; in fact, we never ate sitting down.

As a result, Lerman says she grew up “hungry,” both physically and emotionally. But she found refuge with her maternal grandmother with whom she dined weekly as a child:

When I walked into her kitchen, life transformed from processed packages of salty MSG instant soup to the delicious warm, fragrant smell of homemade chicken soup. Giant salads, fresh fruits and the aroma of just-baked muffins filled the air and my world. It was the only place I can remember feeling happy, safe and nourished. It was what I craved.

My grandmother . . . taught me how good it felt to be cared for, and how to care for myself and others through cooking.

When Lerman’s family moved away and these dinners were no longer possible, her grandmother still sent her a weekly card with “a $20 bill, a recipe and a list of what to buy at the market. It kept us bonded, and her recipes filled my body and soul.”

Even if it’s only once a week, even if the meal is as simple as a box of pasta and a jar of sauce, we know instinctively there’s something to be gained from gathering together and breaking bread. We might not be warding off future drug use or boosting report cards, but let’s not let this study discourage us from feeding our children, “body and soul.”

;

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

mommm!!! July 3, 2012 at 11:17 am

A few thoughts:

~I think that family dynamics shapes the regular sit down meal and not the other way around. Growing up to age 12 I looked forward to eating dinner with my mom and gramma every night. When my mother remarried when I was 12 dinner became a nightmare I had to endure every night with her verbally abusive husband while my mother sat there and allowed it. So, to me, the findings in the new study make sense. I think we all want to believe that all parents that sit down with their children every night for dinner are “normal” or “saintly” and that’s just simply not the case. Lots of bad parents ALSO sit down to dinner nightly.

~I find myself bristling slightly at your statement:
“….I’ve always assumed that regular family dinners must correlate with other factors which impact kids favorably, like tighter familial bonds, higher income levels (in that a family dinner is easier to pull off if one spouse stays at home) and possibly higher education.”

Um, I got my degrees long after my child was born. I grew up desperately poor. I am from a long line of (as is my child) children born out of wedlock and raised without a father. Also, none of the women in my family, going back 8 generations, have EVER “stayed home”. In fact, I was the first to stay home for the first 2 years of my son’s life.

I think critically thinking about food simply requires a passion for food, not a college degree, not a 2 parent household where one person stays home, higher incomes, etc. My income is well below what I’m guessing most would consider acceptable and that doesn’t stop me from cooking meals or sitting down with my child. In my home, the “entire family” consists of me and my child. I’m damn proud of my accomplishments, but I’m no June Cleaver. By all accounts I should be on SNAP and shoveling Oreos in my face. Yet here I am. To ignore people like me in assumptions about food cultures is disappointing.

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Grace @eatdinner July 3, 2012 at 11:27 am

Thanks Bettina for your impassioned and well-stated defense of family dinner. I have many thoughts on this (of course!)….but I agree there is something about the sense of stability and routine that kids thrive on. Knowing that there is a dedicated time for family, be it every night or just once a week, makes a big difference for kids and adults.

This research also begs the question: if not “family meals,” what else? What other interventions are easily accessible to families on a day to day basis for communication and connection? I guess, you can use your commute time to chat in the car, because that is usually such a relaxed and restful time of day (not!) and families watch TV together (not much talking there, though). One of the reasons that family dinner is a “target” in these new research studies is that it repeatedly shows up as one of the only things that has a positive correlation with desired public health outcomes, ranging from drug abuse prevention to obesity. Yet no one can figure out the hard and fast reasons why. (Surely we can’t trust our instincts, or our grandmother’s, for that matter!)

I’m all for new research, but I think we need to frame the questions properly. What is it about family dinner that works? Or what is it about families who are successful at family dinner? How can we learn from them to replicate success and educate families?

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Aviva Goldfarb July 3, 2012 at 11:33 am

Just beautiful, so true, and I am so glad you are writing what we all are thinking but can’t articulate so well. Thank you!

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Jenny July 3, 2012 at 12:37 pm

Agree. For me family dinner (which we are able do do almost every night since my kids aren’t involved in competitive sports or other dinner-killing activities) keeps me honest and regularly thinking about what I’m going to feed everybody. And I’m the worst at cooking, so things would go to hell in a handbasket really fast if I didn’t have daily accountability…..

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Lacy July 3, 2012 at 4:59 pm

For me, a family dinner is also part of teaching my daughter the culture of food I want her to embrace. Even though she still sits in a high chair and eats with her fingers, she sits right at the table with us and eats while we eat. At my mom’s house recently, my toddler finished her meal before everyone else. My mom hurried to help her out of her high chair, but I asked her to leave my daughter there. She happily sat at the table with us for another 10–15 minutes or so until everyone was finished eating. That kind of social education is, I think, as important as anything you might get with a family dinner.

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foleydog July 3, 2012 at 9:10 pm

I agree with Lacy – what about the culture. It seems every step ‘forward’ in America abandons culture.

At the dinner table (as a child) I learned about where my family came from, why we were eating the foods we did, etc.

We eat breakfast, dinner, (and I stay-at-home mom, lunch) with our son. I think it’s very important for a whole host of reasons. Parenting is NOT simply keeping up our child’s school attendance and keeping them from drugs.

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Amy July 4, 2012 at 11:46 am

Great post, Bettina.
As a science and medical writer it pains me to say this, but I believe that you can’t “measure” everything. Some things, you just know and who cares if they can be validated by numbers? And I know that spending time with my family, showing my love through cooking nourishing foods, and creating a restorative environment to shield us all from the sharp edges of the everyday world is important. I don’t know what my kids (or my husband or I) would be like without those things, but I’m not going to bother finding out – which would be necessary if I really wanted to prove that my efforts were making a difference in our lives. Sometimes, you just know.

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 5, 2012 at 7:56 am

So well put, Amy!

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