Dr. Anne K. Fishel is a co-founder of The Family Dinner Project and a clinical psychologist, teacher, blogger, and family therapist. She is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Dr. Fishel is the author of several published works; her latest book is “Home For Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids.”
The Importance of Eating Together
Why should we eat dinner together more often?
Most American families are starved for time to spend together, and dinner may be the only time of the day when we can reconnect, leaving behind our individual pursuits like playing video games, emailing and doing homework. Dinner is a time to relax, recharge, laugh, tell stories and catch up on the day’s ups and downs, while developing a sense of who we are as a family.
Do family dinners have any scientific benefits?
Over the past 15 years researchers have confirmed what parents have known for a long time: sharing a family meal is good for the spirit, the brain and the health of all family members. Recent studies link regular family dinners with many behaviors that parents pray for: lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression, as well as higher grade-point averages and self-esteem. Studies also indicate that dinner conversation is a more potent vocabulary-booster than reading, and the stories told around the kitchen table help our children build resilience. The icing on the cake is that regular family meals also lower the rates of obesity and eating disorders in children and adolescents. What else can families do that takes only about an hour a day and packs such a punch?
How many nights a week should we try to eat dinner together?
Researchers find that families who eat dinner together five nights a week reap great benefits, but there is no magic number, nor is dinner inherently preferable to other meals. If your family finds breakfast or weekend lunches easier meals for a gathering, then these could also “count.”
We’re just so busy. How can we find the time to cook and eat together?
Time is certainly one of the biggest obstacles to families gathering for dinner. One good strategy is to cook a big batch of soup or a double batch of a casserole over the weekend, and then freeze some to make weekday dinners easier. Some meals can be thrown together quickly with help from store-bought ingredients, like pre-cut veggies, or a pre-made pizza dough. There are also many recipes that take less than 15 minutes. Please see the section of our website for ideas.
If you think of family dinner as a time to nourish your family, prevent all kinds of problems, increase your children’s cognitive abilities, and provide pleasure and fun that they can build on for the rest of their lives, a nightly meal is an efficient use of time.
Is it wrong to eat dinner in front of the television?
Making a steady diet of eating family dinners in front of the TV would certainly interfere with the pleasures and benefits of conversation. Researchers have found that meals eaten in front of the TV do not carry the same mental health benefits as those eaten “unplugged.” Certainly, it would be fine occasionally to watch a special program while eating a family meal. In addition, talking about a program as a family could provide benefits as well.