11/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Share the Table, Feed Your Contentment

Despite the pressures of health care reform, two wars, and a suffering economy, by all accounts President Obama sits down to dinner with his family most nights. As the new school year begins and Americans' family schedules shift into overdrive, we can all take a lesson from the Obamas' effort to make dinner time quality family time, especially considering what research continues to reveal about the benefits of sharing meals together -- and not just for kids.

A just-released study of 2000 Americans by Barilla, the Italian food company (full disclosure: I advised on the study's design), is one of the largest of its kind to explore how eating meals together affects both children and adults. The good news is that adults who share the table more frequently report higher overall satisfaction with every aspect of their lives. (You can read the full study here.)

I've been studying and working with families since the 1970s, but it was only a decade ago that I started to pay attention to the shared dinner table. I came to realize that "family experts" like me had completely overlooked something important and powerful: the simple act of eating together is one of the most important things parents can do to help their children grow up well.

Since then, research has continually confirmed that eating meals as a family affects nearly every area of a child's life. Kids who eat regular family meals get better school grades, are better off psychologically, receive better nutrition, don't smoke as much or do drugs, and are less sexually active as teens. A 1996 Harvard study showed that family dinners were more important than play, story time and other family events in language development.

The Barilla research adds some new dimensions. The study shows that adults and children who enjoy more frequent family meals have fewer weight problems. Researchers and public health professionals have suspected this might be true, but this report gives us concrete evidence from a national sample.
On average, the study shows, people sit down at the table with others four nights each week, which isn't bad. But a quarter (25%) says that they eat alone at least three nights a week, and a quarter (23%) agrees that sometimes it feels like their family is a disconnected group of individuals living under one roof. They want more and better family connections.

Strikingly, they also say that it's not only the quantity of family meals that contributes to their life satisfaction, but also the quality of meals. For years, experts on family meals have preached turning off the TV -- but now texting, iPhones, and game players also compete with family dinner. Seven in 10 people (69%) say that some other activity is happening at the same time as the typical family dinner, with watching television topping the list, and six in 10 (58%) point to some type of technology or entertainment-related distraction.

If your family eats together less often than you would like, or if you want your dinners to be higher in quality, make small changes first. You might have one more family dinner per week, which means figuring out how to carve out the time. Or turn off the TV and banish the hand-helds during dinner. Or start and end dinner with everyone present instead of a lot of coming and going during the meal. Make meals that are easier to cook and clean up, and let the kids help. Or just work on making the conversation at the table more relaxed, more fun, more inclusive.

Back in May, President Obama told Time magazine that seeing his kids every day and having dinner with them every night is "the thing that sustains me." If sharing the table can help the world's Most Stressed Dad get through his work week, and gives him the daily emotional lift he needs, think about what it can do for the rest of us.