You may remember family dinner scenes from old TV shows: Father Knows Best, the Waltons, Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver. The Beaver is at his cutest at the table; Wally is always trying to wrangle out of trouble while Ward and June are the icons of 1950s-style parental authority. The table is set with a white linen table cloth and fine china.

That type of family dinner scene no longer exists … if it ever did. Today, dinner is likely to be a series of rapidly eaten snacks as adults and children rush off in different directions for meetings, work, exercise, music lessons or sports practices.

Without the white tablecloth perhaps, many American families (58 to 61 percent, according to one study) continue to sit down together for meals, at least several times a week, and the children in these families gain a wide range of benefits, according to studies. They have better nutrition, are more likely to maintain a normal weight, have better behavior and do better at school.

The headline on a Washington Post article by Harvard Psychology Professor Anne Fishel put it this way: “The most important thing you can do with your kids? Eat dinner with them.”

STRENGTHENING FAMILY BONDS: One reason the family dinner table was so prominent in old TV shows is that writers considered it an image of family and cultural cohesion. And it remains an opportunity to get together as a family and strengthen bonds.

Even when everyone is trying hard, those little chats and long conversations between child and parent tend to get crowded out by more pressing tasks … except at the dinner table.

At three years of age, my grandson loved to bring up matters he had been thinking about: “What causes a tornado?” or “Why is the ground messy around a volcano?” It made him feel more secure and important when his parents took these matters seriously.

Older children and adolescents also enjoy the chance to sit down and talk. According to one study, 71 percent of adolescents said they welcomed the chance to talk with other family members and catch up with their activities.

This is best accomplished, of course, without cell phones and away from the TV and other screens. While some parents may like to model manners, behavior and values, the dinner table is not a good place for criticism or conflict.

LEARNING COMMUNICATION SKILLS: Educators and pediatricians have long stressed the importance of reading to children. It builds a bond between parent and child, and it gives kids the vocabulary to give them a head start on learning to read.

Apparently, the language they pick up in the context of a family dinner is even more diverse. Of “rare” or uncommonly encountered words, children in one study learned 1,000 at the dinner table compared to only 143 from storybooks.

Studies show that older children and adolescents who have frequent family meals are more highly motivated and more likely to get high achievement test scores and A’s in the classroom than their peers who have less frequent family meals.

BETTER BEHAVIOR: Research shows that children with frequent mealtime encounters with family have fewer emotional and behavior problems, less depression and lower risks of smoking, binge drinking, drunkenness, marijuana use, violence and early sexual activity.

BETTER NUTRITION: The most obvious benefit of the family meal is improved nutrition. Parents have more control over the family meal, and, as a result, kids are likely to eat more fruits, vegetables and high quality protein.

One study published in Pediatrics found that children and adolescents eating three or more family meals a week were 12 percent less likely than peers to be obese or overweight or to have an eating disorder.

PART OF A PATTERN? One recent study based on data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health tried to sort out traits that differentiate families who dine together from those who don’t. These included age and gender of children, family income, parental education, family structure, cultural background and maternal employment. Even when these factors were taken into account, family dinners were associated with lower levels of depression. It may be that getting together for family meals is part of a pattern of activities that occur when parents try to set aside quality time with their kids–reading books, discussing ideas, traveling, having fun together.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Make family meals a priority. If you already have a meals-on-the-run approach, make changes gradually. Start with two family dinners, then expand to three and four. At least three meals a week should be the ultimate goal.

This information was submitted by Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury and is meant to complement, not replace, the advice and care you receive from your healthcare provider.


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