Monday, October 5, 2009

Family Dinners: Managing the Guilt

I read yesterday's New York Times article, "The Guilt-Trip Casserole," by Jan Hoffman with much interest. I'm always interested to read about the research on the benefits of family meals. I founded Dinner Together based on my knowledge of this research and my desire to help families overcome their obstacles to making frequent family meals a reality in their homes. Refer to my earlier post, "The 4 P's of Successful Family Meals," for some strategies for organizing family meals. Hoffman's article highlights the guilt that many parents feel in response to their struggles and shortcomings in gathering their families together nightly around the dinner table.

I'd like to take this chance to respond to a few of the issues Hoffman raises in the article.

Will eating five family dinners per week prevent your children from drinking alcohol and using drugs?
I am not so bold or naive as to make that claim. As was pointed out in the article, the research at this point is correlational and does not show that eating family dinners causes lower use of drugs and alcohol. I agree with Dr. Philip Cowan who was quoted in the article as saying that parents who can organize themselves to pull off the feat of frequent family meals are likely to produce children with good outcomes anyway. Further, I believe that parents can learn skills and strategies to better organize themselves so that they can improve on their abilities to "pull it off" more frequently.

Is eating dinner together the only way that parents can connect with their children and gain the benefits associated with frequent family meals?
Absolutely not. First of all, any meals counts. In addition, there are many ways to connect positively and spend quality time with your children. As for meaningful conversation, I have probably had just as many, if not more, meaningful conversations with my 14 year old in the car than at the table. One of the important functions the family meal serves is to provide a structured, regular opportunity for parents and children to share time together. Family members need a time that they can count on, that they know will be coming to have the opportunity to talk with each other.

Is there something special about the family meal that other shared activities might not address?
I would love to see more research in this area. I believe that other activities and family variables may be just as likely to be associated with lower risk of adolescent substance abuse and better child outcomes in academic and mental health domains. However, my gut tells me that the frequent family meals present a unique opportunity to influence child outcomes in the domains of nutrition, weight management and healthy eating habits. Witnessing healthy adult role models for eating and sharing and participating in a meal with family members are distinct experiences which can directly influence the relationship a child will develop with food.

Does a family meal have to be home-cooked?
I believe that the time together is more important than the food when defining a family meal. However, I think the quality of the food still bears importance. How often can a family meal regularly consist of take-out fast food without eventually affecting the physical health of family members? Generally, home-cooked meals are healthier.

So what do you think? Are you struggling with family meals and feeling guilty about it? What would help you?


  1. I think that family mealtimes can be the glue that keeps a family together. It can be at home or out, breakfast, lunch or dinner. Spending time together while talking and eating slowy seems really helpful in keeping people "in touch" with each other. In terms of health, of course, I think that cooking at home gives the family a lot more control over the ingredients they use. And for kids, the act of cooking reinforces so many of the concepts that they are learning in school. (On another note, I think that the same result could probably be achieved by going on family walks, hikes, or other intimate outings.)

  2. It is VERY hard to share regular family meals--but definitely worth the trouble.

    With busy schedules, economic and other stresses, I think the ritual of sitting down together and sharing a simple, home-cooked meal is deeply reassuring.

    To make family meals a reality in a two-career home, we spread out the labor. My husband grocery shops and does some of the cooking. (Cooking isn't as easy for him, but he's trying!)

    And when I know I have a busy week ahead, I prepare cook-ahead meals the weekend before.

  3. I think that eating family meal together as often as possible is important. And, even though I don't have time to have that perfect home cooked meal every evening, as I outlined in a recent post, I am hopeful that spending time together build family bonds--even if it's not the picture perfect ideal.


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