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It's time for dinner (with the family)

The pumpkins have been brought inside, and it's now the holiday season. We love this time of year, especially because of its emphasis on gathering with people we love.

Dining together with family members during the holidays is a time of enjoyment and bonding, an opportunity to catch up on the news of each other's lives.

But a warm dinner with the family can make any night a comforting occasion, whether or not it's cold outside. At this time of year, when families gather for traditional dining, they might consider the importance of regular meals together.

According to Janet Peterson, author of the books "Remedies for the 'I Don't Cook Syndrome' " and "Family Dinners," regular family meals give children something to look forward to.

"Eating dinner together provides more than good nutrition," Peterson says. "It enables family members to share their days with each other, relax, laugh, discuss social issues and strengthen family relationships."

Peterson and other experts agree that the assurance of a home-cooked family dinner can bring security and peace to a child's life.

"Cooking at home conveys an unspoken message to the family. It says, 'You are worth my time and energy,' " says Peterson, who recalls an old Pillsbury slogan, "Nothing says lovin' like somethin' from the oven."

"The emotional comfort of home cooking for children is something every parent discovers," said Cheryl Mendelson, author of "Home and Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House." "Sharing meals with the children in

the privacy of your home, meals that you have prepared, reinforces your authority and beneficence in their eyes and helps increase their trust and pride in you and your abilities. You have the skill and knowledge to offer them good things; you take the time and trouble for them."

Yet those concepts — time and trouble — don't always fit into today's lightning-paced society, and it seems like the idea of a family dinner is slipping away.

According to a study cited by the Michigan State University Extension Education department, only 49 percent of families studied ate dinner together seven nights a week and 74 percent ate together five nights a week. Consumer Reports notes that "on average, Americans dine out 18 times a month, spending the equivalent of $812 per year for every man, woman and child."

According to Peterson, Americans spend three times as much on food outside the home as they did a generation ago. When it comes to our children's nutrition, we usually think more about what our kids are eating than how they're eating it.

In other words, dining together as a family has become a bit of a lost art, according to Anne Lindsay, author of "Anne Lindsay's Light Kitchen."

"When you eat together, you enjoy the family and find out what everyone's done that day," she said. "Children also learn table manners and pick up your values. It's where families can enjoy time together."

So why eat together?

Family bonding

Eating a family meal creates an environment that fosters conversation. During dinner, the family has the opportunity to spend time together, author Janet Peterson says.

"Because they are sitting down together at the table, looking across at each other, it is a level playing field, with the parents not standing taller than the children, which creates a more relaxed atmosphere," she says.

Saving money

"Restaurants are in the business to make money," Peterson said. "Their labors, real estate and profit margin all cost. If they don't make money, they don't stay in business." She says if you multiply the average of $812 spent annually per person on eating out, it doesn't take a CPA to tell you that it's costly, especially for a family with children.

"Restaurant prices in recent years have risen slightly faster than inflation, making it even more expensive to eat away from home," Peterson says.

Healthier meals

A study published in the British Archives of Family Medicine found that having a family dinner was not only associated with a healthier way of eating, but also had a positive effect on the family's physical and emotional health.

The study reported that those who ate dinner with their families were more likely to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables daily. The home-cooked meal is more likely to contain a variety of food groups. Milk or water is more likely to be served, and less soda pop or high fat foods are typically offered.

Commercially prepared foods are notoriously high in sugar, starch and fat, although some restaurants do list low-fat items on their menus, says Peterson. She adds that home cooking allows a family to select healthful ingredients, tailor meals to suit their own particular nutritional needs and tastes, serve portions appropriate to age and activity level, and monitor methods of preparation.

We also eat more when we eat out.

"Everything is super-sized," Peterson says. "Restaurant portions continue to increase. The usual restaurant plate used to be 10 inches in diameter and now it is 12 inches."

Learning

Preschool children who eat with the family have better language skills, according to the Rockford Clinic. Dinner-time conversation exposes them to a broader vocabulary, especially as they listen to adults and older children. Eating together as a family can teach good communications skills, such as listening patiently and expressing one's opinion in a respectful manner.

According to researchers at the University of Illinois, children age 7-11 who did well on school achievement tests ate the majority of their meals and snacks with their families.

One study points out how family dinners are strong preventative medicine. Joseph A. Califano Jr., president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, reported: "Intensive research and teen surveys have consistently revealed that the more often children eat dinner with their parents, the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use illegal drugs."

Family tradition

Food served at the family table helps shape and give lasting meaning to our cultural heritage, says Katherine Carson, associate professor of food science at Pennsylvania State College.

"Positive food memories created during childhood are cherished for life," she says.

Peterson adds that food provides a connection among families.