Family Dinners

Anne Fishel is a co-founder of the Family Dinner Project, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the author of “Home for Dinner.”

Each year, more than 9 in 10 Americans gather around the table with family and friends for Thanksgiving. But only 50 percent of us eat with our family on a regular basis. That’s too bad. Twenty years of research has shown that family dinners are great for the brain (enhancing preschool vocabulary and raising test scores), body (improving cardiovascular health in teens and lowering the odds of obesity) and spirit (reducing rates of behavioral problems, stress and substance abuse). But in extolling the virtues of the family dinner, we may have obscured what the meal is actually about and why it serves parents and children. In that gap lies a thick stew of myths.

1. Teens don’t want to eat with their parents….

Yet the scientific literature paints a different picture. Most teens value theirrelationships with their parents. This is true at the dinner table, as well. About 80 percent of teenagers say they’d rather have dinner with their families than by themselves.

2. Family dinners are anti-feminist….

But embracing family dinners doesn’t have to mean conjuring a vision of June Cleaver in her spotless 1950s kitchen. Today, men are far more likely to help.Between 1965 and 2008, men nearly doubled their time spent cooking, and 42 percentof men now cook as often as their wives.

3. Family dinners depend on being homemade.

Of course, homemade meals are usually healthier and lower in fats, salt, sugar and calories than store-bought alternatives. But the benefits of family dinners don’t depend on what you eat. More important is the opportunity to engage with your children and learn about their day-to-day lives.

4. Families don’t have time to pull it off.

In my research, lack of time is the top reason families give for not eating together more often. Kids and parents alike feel rushed, stretched by hectic schedules and exhausted by screens that keep us tethered to work around the clock….

But not every American family is struggling to have dinner together. During the same period, other families started eating together more — the percentage of adolescents in the highest socioeconomic bracket who shared regular meals with their families rose from 56 percent to 61 percent…

5. Food fights make family dinners impossible….

Studies have shown that the best way to avoid food fights isn’t by forcing kids to eat — it’s for parents to model good eating habits and introduce a wide variety of foods before age 4, when children are more open to them. Tactile play, such as having kids smear oil on vegetables for roasting, has also been shown to reduce food aversions in children. And, finally, kids crave familiarity, so nutritionists offer the rule of 15: Keep presenting a new food up to 15 times until it is no longer novel.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.