Talk With Your Mouth Full: Benefits of the Family Dinner

by Ian Chant

The tradition of families reporting on their days over dinner seems more like a leftover every day, but recent studies have suggested that family togetherness is not the only thing that suffers when parents and kids fail to connect over a meal.

Children’s health does, too. And not just for the reason you might expect. Kids who eat family dinners are healthier not just because the food on the table is good for them, but because dinner conversation is too.

The latest such study, published January in the journal Child Development, suggests that regular family dinners may even help stem asthma attacks in adolescents. The study followed 200 families with children suffering from persistent asthma. Rather than measuring nutrition at the table, the researchers followed the way families interacted. They analyzed civility and behavior, keeping track of things like whether or not the TV was turned off and whether diners said please when asking someone to pass the salt. But the most important factor measured was communication: how much families discussed their days over dinner.

In chronic conditions like asthma, catching small incidents before they turn into big ones is critical. Dinnertime makes a great environment for these kinds of check-ins because parents can get consistent, timely updates without making it feel like a chore or an interrogation. “The beauty of checking in during a mealtime is that it doesn’t need to a long drawn out discussion or make the child feel like they are being nagged,” Dr. Barbara Fiese of the University of Illinois. “It can be part of the regular routine.”

They found that children with asthma suffered fewer attacks during the day when they discussed their condition in the evening at the dinner table. “Many children with asthma have feelings of anxiety or worry about their symptoms,” says Fiese, who led the study. Regular meals with the family provide a routine for kids and put them at ease about their asthma. And that makes the condition easier to control, according to Dr. Fiese.

Previous research has also suggested that as good as a well-rounded meal may be, family dinners are more important for the interaction and sense of consistency they provide to children. Researchers at The University of Minnesota have released a number of papers on the psychological benefits of family dinner, and there are many. Better grades. Improved self-esteem. Lower incidences of depression and substance abuse. And all these bonuses depend on the dinner table being a place for conversation as well as consumption, says Dr. Marla Eisenberg at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing and Public Health.

The most important aspect of meals, Eisenberg says, is spending time together. “Even family meals that don’t look anything like a Norman Rockwell painting – that is, most family meals – can be beneficial for young people,” says Eisenberg.




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