Seattle, Wash., — Despite mounting evidence that families and kids benefit substantially from sharing meals together, there is also evidence that families are eating together less often. That’s why the Nutrition Education Network of Washington is promoting the concept of regular family meals as their contribution to national “Eat Better, Eat Together” month.
“There is so much competition for our time that finding time to cook and eat with our kids gets squeezed out,” said Sue Butkus, a nutrition specialist at Washington State University’s Puyallup Research and Extension Center. “Between work schedules, soccer and band practices for the kids, video games and the Internet, people increasingly don’t schedule time for meals together. Given recent world events, making time to share meals and conversation with the family takes on even more significance.”
In a 1999 survey of families receiving food stamps with children ages 5 to 11 Butkus found the frequency of family meals is declining. Those responding reported their families ate dinner together an average of 4.9 times a week, down from the average of 5.6 times a week only two years earlier.
“There is solid research that shows that not sharing family meals can have a significant impact on kids,” said Cindy Reishus, chair of the Nutrition Education Network. “There are numerous studies and surveys that all point in the same direction. When families don’t get together regularly over the dinner table the kids are more prone to depression and drug use, don’t eat as well and don’t do as well in school.”
A 1994 survey of 2000 high school seniors by Lou Harris and Associates, for example, found that students who regularly ate dinner with their families four or more times a week scored better in a battery of academic tests than those who ate family dinners three or fewer times a week.”
So what can parents do to make time for family dinners?
“The biggest culprit in reducing the frequency of family meals is the demands on our time,” said Martha Marino, nutritionist with the Dairy Council of Washington. “You need to add ‘dinner’ to your family schedule. To make sure you spend most of dinnertime with your family rather than at your stove, plan meals that are simple to prepare.”
Another way to make family meals happen is to involve the kids in the planning and preparation as well as the eating. Homemade pizza, using a pre-made crust or even French bread, can be a simple and fun meal to prepare together.
“Dinner is usually the meal that is easiest for most families to schedule, but for some it may be easier to have breakfast together,” Marino said. “If a parent has the time, it’s also possible in many circumstances for parents to join their kids at school for lunch. The key is for kids and adults to share time together, and sharing a meal is the perfect opportunity.”
There are a number of Web sites with additional information about the value of families eating together and ideas for making them happen, including:
- http://www.family.com/ — This site covers many related topics including cooking with kids, establishing family traditions, meal planning tips and more than 10,000 recipes.
- http://www.familyfoodzone.com/ — Nutrition resources for families, including healthy recipes for kids to make, and ideas for nutritious meals in a hurry.
- http://www.parenting.com/ — A parenting resource that provides skill-building ideas. Contains a number of articles on family meals, including one entitled “Why kids that eat with their parents tend to eat healthier.”
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