Don’t give up on the family dinner

For years, I have been telling families in my practice, especially those with teens, to eat dinner together. Family dinners make a difference, I tell them. Studies show that they not only help prevent obesity, they help kids do better in school and help keep them out of trouble.

Now a study says that’s a bunch of hogwash.

Well, not exactly hogwash. The researchers from Cornell who wrote “Assessing Causality and Persistence in Effects of Family Meals on Adolescent and Young Adult Well-Being” (published in the Journal of Marriage and Family) agree that youth who eat dinner with their families have less substance abuse, depression and delinquency. But, they say, it’s not the family dinners that do it. It’s the strong family relationships that do it. Families that eat dinner together regularly are more likely to spend time together, communicate and generally be close. They are also more likely to be two-parent families, higher income, with one parent who doesn’t work. It’s all this that makes the difference, say the researchers, not sitting down at the table as a family.

Part of me was a little relieved to read this, because I always miss dinner with my family on Tuesdays (I see patients in the evening) and I often miss it on Thursdays (I get stuck at work). My husband’s work schedule keeps him from eating with us on Wednesdays and Fridays. Whichever one of us is home makes a dinner and eats with whichever kids are home (a teen is sometimes at work or practice), but Norman Rockwell it ain’t.

But I am not about to give up on family dinner—and I am not changing my advice to families one iota.

It’s not all that helpful for me to say to parents: have a good relationship with your teen. We all want to do that. It’s the making it happen that’s tough—especially given that once they become teens they don’t really want to be with you. They want to be with their friends—or be alone. Outside of car rides, it’s hard to get any time to talk with them—and once they drive you might not even get that. But family dinners give you a chance to check in and have a conversation, even if it’s awkward. Family dinners are a practical, tangible way to send a clear message that you care about what is going on with them and that they are part of a family. These are good messages (caring about what they eat is a good one too!).

Every Monday at our house is Family Meeting—we’ve done this for about fifteen years. It’s sacrosanct family time. There’s no work, no practice, no social plans—unless there is an extraordinary circumstance, everyone is home. We eat tortillas with various fixings (which my husband cooks while I make lunches and snacks for the week, with the podcast of “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” on in the background.)

There is a structure to it. First we do “appreciations”: everyone has to appreciate somebody for something. Then we do “announcements”, which we mostly use to organize the logistics of the week. We finish with “agenda items,” if there are any—that’s when we make plans for things together, or work out solutions (as amicably as possible) to problems (like people taking all the towels out of the bathroom). Liam, the youngest, added “Napkin Fight” to the end—he goes into the stairwell and throws cloth napkins at us and tries (unsuccessfully) to not get hit by the ones we throw back at him.

While in the midst of one of those cranky adolescent phases, one of my older kids once said during Family Meeting, “This is the only time all week I like you guys.” I guess I should have been offended, but all I felt was gratitude for Family Meeting.

Okay, so maybe Family Meeting happens and works because of our family culture. But maybe our family culture works in part because of Family Meeting. It’s a chicken-and-egg-thing. Does it really matter which comes first? I get that the research says that family dinners aren’t the magic bullet; imagine that, there isn’t a simple solution to keeping teens out of trouble. But you have to start somewhere—and every little thing counts.

So if you are already doing family dinners, please don’t stop. And if you aren’t, please try them out. Even if it’s just once a week and the food is take-out. Shut off the TV, get everyone to the table, have a conversation. Don’t worry if the first few feel awkward; keep at it, figure out what works for you.

Liam recommends that you try Napkin Fights.

Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the medical director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Martha Eliot Health Center.  She blogs at Thriving, the Children’s Hospital Boston blog, and Vector, the Children’s Hospital Boston science and clinical innovation blog.

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