Dear Mom: Let’s Bring Back the Family Dinner

462848295You know, I’ve been lucky. My mom is a take-charge kind of woman and super organized when it comes to dinnertime. When I was growing up, she’d have one of us three girls set the table (connected to allowance rewards) and deliver a hot, homemade meal by 5:30 p.m. sharp—when Dad would call us to the kitchen with his “Soup’s on!” rallying cry.

We’d come up from our downstairs rec room and the Afterschool Special on TV, and dig in, hoping for a great dessert. Mom is a fantastic baker, but we also had a thing for Jell-O layered in colors and whipped cream. That said, we had our share of “Hamburger Helper” and “Shake ’n Bake” (those dinner prep shortcuts for busy families never get old!), but we always ate well. Plenty of fresh vegetables, salads, lean meats, roast chicken and corn on the cob in season. Mom’s roast beef dinner with homemade Yorkshire pudding can’t be beat, really, and that was Sunday dinner, unless we switched up tradition for a fancy “gourmet” dinner, when one of us would be in charge of a three-course meal under Mom’s supervision. I remember one time we all pretended to love my sister’s flavorless cold cucumber soup. Sorry LJ, but it’s true!

Family Dinners Circa 1980: Sit Down and Clean Your Plate

Our family dinners happened early in the evening, so we could still be chauffeured off to various piano, choir and dance lessons, but we’d sit and eat and talk a little bit about our days. Or glare at each other over the bottles of salad dressings because of some petty misdemeanor. Sisters! We took this family time for granted, but it was a consistent part of our daily routine.

Turns out, it was for the best. And most kids today just don’t have it so good, I realize, with parents working full-time or two jobs, and 24/7 smartphones usurping our best intentions to sit down and relax. If I had a nickel for every dinner date that’s been interrupted by urgent texting…

While my dad would rather eat soup out of a can than cook something and dirty the dishes, Mom was a supply teacher for primary grades; she was home a lot of the time, so she made domestic duties and her wonderful meals a top priority. Thank you, Mom, for every pot you stirred and scalloped potato casserole that came out of your oven! Now I’m in a two-parent working family, speeding to pick up my four-year-old and scrambling to get a balanced meal (leftovers welcome) on the table. My husband, some days, joins us at the tail-end, when we’re getting ready for Barney on Netflix.

Smartphones and Tablets Not the Best Dining Companions

Nowadays, social scientists belabor the loss of family bonding time and technology chipping away at our face-to-face interactions. Gathering around the dinner table to share food and quality time is practically obliterated by hectic living: Dinner in the car en route to soccer practice; take-out pizza left on the table to grab for whomever, whenever; latchkey kids microwaving frozen entrees because parents are home long after the dinner hour.

But our health is at stake! A U.K. study in 2012 found that one or two family meals each week helped kids eat more fruits and vegetables (likely parents, too, by association). In fact, the kids ate 1.5 portions more each day, so the positive effect of dining together as a family has a significant impact. When your body needs five to 10 servings of fruits and veggies per day (for key nutrients), this is a big deal.

Dinnertime with Family Serves Up Good Health

We know that obesity is a massive health problem and recently labeled disease. While it’s difficult to correct in adults, we now know that a child’s risk of obesity can be set early on, well before they’ve started school. A study out of Emory University, paid for by the U.S. government and published in January in the New England Journal of Medicine, tracked a U.S.-wide sample of more than 7,700 children through grade school. When these kids started kindergarten, 12% were obese and 15% were overweight. By eighth grade, 21% were obese and 17% were overweight.

More kids became overweight as the study progressed, it’s true, but being overweight in kindergarten carried a particularly high risk. Those kids were four-times more likely than children of a normal weight to become obese over the course of the study.

Some solutions? Cut out the soda, juice and “Frankenfoods” processed with unpronounceable and unrecognizable ingredients. And eat at the dinner table with the family! Kids who eat with their families fare better in terms of both physical and mental health, so parents breathe easier. Even if the dinner isn’t perfect or made from scratch, take the time to sit down together. A couple dinners a week can make a difference, influencing our attitudes and behaviors about food—and bringing you closer as a family for years to come.

Mom, this one’s for you! Thanks for being there and heading up the Hawthorne kitchen. Happy Mother’s Day!

Christian, M., et al., “Family meals can help children reach their 5 a day: a cross-sectional survey of children’s dietary intake from London primary schools,” Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, December 19, 2012; doi: 10.1136/jech-2012-201604.
Cunningham, S., et al., “Incidence of Childhood Obesity in the United States,” New England Journal of Medicine, January 30, 2014; doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1309753.