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New Study Says Family Dinners Are Overrated: Why I Disagree

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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 wrote 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 say 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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