Parenting is so complicated – there are thousands of books, guides, gurus, and studies showing different nuggets of information, many times contradictory. However, you’ll be surprised to read that there is one activity that you can do with your children that has numerous, wide ranging benefits: everything from showing an increase in intelligence and vocabulary to reducing depression, teen pregnancy rates, and improving test scores and grades in school.
You may think these things would happen if you made more money, went to therapy, read to your children every night, or argued less with your spouse. However, the activity is as simple as sitting down and eating meals together.
Per Anne Fishel, Ph.D. and Director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of clinical psychology at Harvard Medical School, eating dinner together is the single most beneficial activity a family can do together for the health and well-being of the children. Dr. Fishel is also author of the book, “Home For Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids”, in which she lays out a very convincing argument on the many benefits of eating together.
Dr. Fishel recently stated,
“I often have the impulse to tell my clients to go home and have dinner together instead of spending an hour with me in therapy…It turns out that sitting down for a nightly meal is great for the brain, the body, and the spirit.”
Dr. Fishel discusses several studies in her book in which she demonstrates numerous benefits, “Dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary [much more than]being read to aloud. [There is also] a consistent correlation between family dinner frequency and teen academic performance [pdf link to study]…regular mealtime is an even more powerful predictor of high achievement scores than time spent in school, doing homework, playing sports, or creating art.”
Family dinners have also been shown to reduce the negative effects of bullying, reduce depression, and increase positive and optimistic thoughts and feelings. Frequent meals are heavily correlated with a reduction in high risk activities in teenagers, such as smoking, marijuana use, teen pregnancy, binge drinking, violence, eating disorders, and school problems.
However, it’s important to make sure the atmosphere is right – that the television is turned off (children watching TV during mealtimes is correlated with overweight and unhealthy children in severalstudies) and that conversation flows at the dinner table. A stressed out meal or one in which there is yelling (or stone cold silence) is not effective.
One of the largest stress factors for me and for millions of others about sitting down to eat together is time pressure. Making enough time to go food shopping, prepare a delicious meal, and then cleaning up afterwards is extremely challenging. Recently I’ve had tremendous success in preventing this pressure by buying healthy meals that are professionally catered at well-known restaurants and supermarkets.
For example, Jimmy John’s Party Platter is extremely inexpensive and contains a total of 15 sandwiches cut in thirds. This means that we can order a variety of sandwiches – some for dinner, such as their ham & cheese, roast beef, or turkey breast options. I’ll also order breakfast sandwiches, like their vegetable sandwich or BLT, in the same order. This way I can guarantee 3-4 stress-free, healthy, and inexpensive meals over a two day period. We all sit together as a family, and there is no time spent on preparation or cleaning up – it’s the best of all worlds.
Another excellent option is ordering from the Chick-fil-A menu. Chick-fil-A menu prices are extremely reasonable, and they offer a wide selection of dinner options. For less than $30 I’m usually able to feed my family of five two dinners and a breakfast – including salads, vegetables, and protein in each meal.
While it’s clear that eating meals together has tremendous mental and physical health benefits for your children, while strengthening your relationship with them, that doesn’t mean that it needs to be difficult or expensive. Order off the catering menu or at inexpensive places, and make sure you make time for the most important part of dinner or breakfast – eating it together with your loved ones and enjoying their company. The benefits will last a lifetime.