Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Rx for Healthy Families: Eat Dinner Together by Dr. Alan Singer

Dinner with your Family, what's the big deal? It's actually quite a big deal and is very beneficial to your children and your entire family. Here's my column that the Home News published on 09/18/07. Please make a special effort to have dinner with your family on September 24th.

It's hard to believe that something that is so easy to do can be so good for you and your children: eating dinner together. A 2004 study of 4,746 children 11 to 18 years old, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, found that frequent family meals were associated with lower risk of smoking, drinking and use of controlled substances such as marijuana. The same study found that teens who ate meals with their family had a lower incidence of depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, "Teens who have frequent family dinners are likelier to get better grades in school, and higher academic performance is associated with lower substance abuse risk."

Rising rates of childhood obesity are a well-known concern of many parents. In 2000, a research team at Harvard studied 16,000 children of nurses and found that children who eat with their parents tend to have healthier eating habits than those who rarely do. The study, published in the Archives of Family Medicine, found that children who had family meals were 1.5 times as likely to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day as those who seldom ate with parents. The authors of the study also noted that these children had healthier diets throughout the day.

Why is the family dinner such a positive experience? It is an established daily gathering where family members can talk, bond, benefit from stress-free time together, and enjoy each other's company. To maximize the positive experience, phones should not be answered and the television should be turned off.

More than a decade's worth of research by CASA (http://www.casacolumbia.org/) has led to several important findings. "Compared to teens that have five or more family dinners per week, those who have two or fewer are: more than twice as likely to have tried cigarettes, 1.5 times likelier to have tried alcohol, and twice as likely to have tried marijuana."

CASA's literature also states with regard to parental engagement: "Parents who have infrequent family dinners are: five times likelier to say they have a fair or poor relationship with their teen, 1.5 times likelier to say they know the parents of their teen's friends — not very well or not at all, and more than twice as likely to say they do not know the names of their teen's teachers."
Important CASA data shows that 58 percent of teens report having dinner with their families at least five times a week, which is up from 47 percent in 1998.

One specific project of CASA is "Family Day," which deserves our support (for our own good). You don"t need to pledge money, write letters to legislators, or attend a rally — just show up at your own dinner table next Monday (Sept. 24). Read more at http://www.casafamilyday.org/ and remember to keep the television off and let phone calls go to voice mail.

I wanted a New Jersey perspective on these national statistics, so I turned to my friend Bill and his e-mail address book of friends for a quick survey. Bill knows lots of people; he is what Malcolm Gladwell, in the book "Tipping Point", refers to as a "connector." Bill e-mailed his friends asking, "How many nights per week do you eat dinner with your family?" When I tallied the responses, and saw the average was 2.4, I called Bill for his comments.

"My reaction is bittersweet," Bill said, "since I'm glad to know that my own two dinners with my family each week is within the norm of my peer group. But the survey reflects the difficulty of young suburban professionals and business executives who struggle with balancing work and family."

When I asked Bill (who has three children under the age of 7) whether he sees his two dinners-per-week lifestyle changing, he replied: "I definitely do aspire to being at home for dinner more often. Where the rubber hits the road is when my kids become more independent and subject to out-of-home influences and I will surely be there more often." Lauding the importance of family dinners, Bill emphasized, "The home has got to be the hub for family life and communication — the dinner table is the center of the home." So, please put down this paper and write Monday, Sept. 24, on your calendar.

"Be Counted" columnist Dr. Alan Singer is a marriage therapist in Highland Park. Respond to this column at Dr. Singer's blog http://www.familythinking.com/ or e-mail DrAlanSinger@aol.com