Family Dinners May Be Harder to Pull Off These Days, But They Still Have Big Benefits

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Last night, after I got done arguing with my two oldest kids for almost an hour to do their homework — while also distracting our preschooler so my wife could finish cooking dinner — we cleared the table of origami, text books, and snack bowls, so we could all sit down for a family dinner. The table was still a little sticky with, well, who knows what. Norah, my middle daughter, showed up to the table for dinner with the headpiece from an old unicorn Halloween costume, grinning. The rest of the costume was likely scattered around the house, but it didn’t matter. She was adorable.

After we blessed the meal, all of my children, ages 3, 8, and 10, looked at our chicken tacos as though they were a hate crime. Nibbling at the corners, the gears in their heads turned with ways to successfully ask for a bowl of cereal. I suppose I should say that 3-year-old Aspen didn’t do any of that. She just pushed her food on the floor, and then asked for some crackers. When my wife suggested she “try it,” Aspen melted down, and was sent to her room. In the time it took for that to settle, my other two kids had thrown away their nibbled-on tacos, and snuck into the pantry for some Captain Crunch.

Does this sound like anyone else’s family dinners? Please say, “yes.”

We don’t have dinner together every night (I work late twice a week). And when we do have family dinner, it’s often closer to a social experiment than a social exercise. So when I came across a recent study in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics about the positive social benefits for kids who have regular family dinners, I couldn’t help but question the findings.

The Canadian study, which was conducted at the University of Montreal, surveyed 1,492 children and their families.

According to study co-author L.S. Pagani, here’s how researchers came about their analysis:

“When children were age 6, parents reported on their typical family meal environment quality. At age 10, parents, teachers, and children themselves provided information on lifestyle habits, academic achievement, and social adjustment, respectively. The relationship between early family meal environment quality and later child outcomes was analyzed using a series of multivariate linear regression.”

In the end, there were a bunch of benefits to the nightly gatherings.

“Family meal environment quality at age 6 predicted higher levels of general fitness and lower levels of soft drink consumption, physical aggression, oppositional behavior, nonaggressive delinquency, and reactive aggression at age 10,” Pagani shared.

That’s right, people — all that fighting to get your kids to the table; all that scrambling home from work to get home to sit down with a family of children who are completely disinterested in discussing their day; all that cursing under your breath because your kids won’t eat brown, unseasoned rice because it is “too spicy!”; all that FRUSTRATION … turns out, it actually has its benefits. And I have to admit the results are encouraging. I mean, it’s not too often as a parent in the Internet age that you can feel like some cluster-mess of a thing like dinner with small children has long-term benefits, amirite?

However, there was one line in the study that made me stop and really think. One that began with, “At a time when family meal frequency is on a natural decline in the population … ” It made me wonder: Are family dinners really on the decline? Or is this just another generalization that’s been making the rounds?

I decided to consult the hive mind, and took to my Facebook page to see what family dinner looks like these days outside the walls of my own home. In less than 24 hours, my post racked up over 300 responses. Naturally, this is just a small sampling, but in reading through the comments it appears that most of those who had something to say felt that they did hold family dinners, and found them to be very important.

Many commented on the value of a family meal spent together, and said they make a point to stick to them every night. But what I found most interesting of all is that almost none of the meals described looked like your traditional Leave It To Beaver-style family dinner, but rather more like the one that goes down every night in my own kitchen.

Maybe family meals aren’t actually on the decline, but simply evolving into something different.
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“We have dinner as a family seven nights a week,” wrote one commenter. “Not because we feel strongly about it, but because our schedules work with it. The TV is always on and occasionally someone (Mom or Dad typically) is on some device. But we say grace, we discuss our day, we argue, kids yell, food is eaten, and kids scurry away. We only drink soda at parties and we only get exercise when it’s warm enough for me to go outside.”

Sounds pretty familiar, if you ask me.

Another commenter had this to say:

“Miraculously, we eat together almost every day. Our kids are 4 and 1. Sometimes there are electronics at the table. Many times Mom and Dad don’t actually get to sit much. Sometimes there’s yelling and screaming, usually from the 1-year-old, but it could be any one of us. But, sometimes the kids are both happy and mom & dad get to eat hot food. Those nights are really nice.”

Many commenters talked about eating together, but on the sofa rather than at the table. Some were single parents who are doing everything they can to get all the children at the table when they aren’t working. Above all, every comment I read included family meals as a goal, and more often than not, a chaotic success story. Ultimately, this all made me wonder if maybe family meals aren’t actually on the decline, but simply evolving into something different. Something a little more chaotic, but still very much about being “together.”

Regardless of how you do a family meal, you have to admit the study’s findings are pretty interesting. And if your nights are anything like mine — where family dinner feels more like competing in an iron man than a quiet evening at home — just know that you’re doing something wonderful for your children. Hopefully, that’ll make all the ups and downs at the table (and all the cold meals) worth it.

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