Is the family dinner still important?

We parents have heard it for years — the family that eats dinner together stays together. Making that effort over the years to encourage family togetherness at the evening meal takes dedication. Now, a recent study shows that it may not matter as much as we originally thought. Keep reading for what the study found, and why you may still cling to family dinner anyway.

Family eating dinner

We have seen it on television, possibly even experienced it in our own homes growing up — a happy family gathered around the dinner table, sharing stories and enjoying a home-cooked meal. Re-creating that scene in our own homes isn’t easy, with family schedules crazy enough to warrant a color-coded calendar. How important is it to the well-being of your children and the happiness of your family?

Try one of these fun themes for family dinnertime >>

Analzying the data

A recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family took on the task of analyzing the relationship between frequent family dinners and three indicators of well-being — symptoms of depression, use of drugs or alcohol and delinquent behaviors. The data used were from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health. About 18,000 adolescents were interviewed twice, one year apart (in middle school or high school) and then again in young adulthood (between the ages of 18 and 26).

What they found

Ann Meier, associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, and Kelly Musick, associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University, wanted to see if there was a cause-and-effect relationship between eating dinner together as a family and the well-being of children.

They first looked at the relationship between family dinners and three indicators of well-being in adolescence. With all other factors being equal, there were strong associations between family dinners and well-being of adolescents in the household.

When they dug deeper into the data and accounted for other ways in which families that ate together differed —  time spent with parents, parental monitoring and family resources — the associations were far less. When they looked at the data on these same adolescents one year later, the effects of family dinner on well-being were diminished. By the time these subjects had entered the third age group (18 to 26 year olds), they found no direct, lasting effects of eating dinner together as a family on mental health, drug and alcohol use or delinquency.

What now?

This study may leave parents more confused than ever about family dinners. Time spent together as a family in general, and the quality of that time, may have a greater impact in the long-run.

Here are a few ideas for family time that don’t revolve around the kitchen table.

  • Game night – No electronics are invited — just a game and an hour together. Choose a game that all ages in the family can participate in, including little ones.
  • Movie or TV night – Again, no cell phones or iPods invited. Choose something that will get the kids talking or laughing, especially if you have teens. It only takes a small amount of time, but the payoff is huge.
  • Errand run – Many tweens and teens do their best talking with parents in the car. Get into the habit of taking one of yours along with you when you run errands, and then sit back and listen. Who knows what you might hear.

Check out these games to play at the dinner table >>

Bonding with your family doesn’t just take place around the kitchen table. Take advantage of small moments here-and-there to nurture that bond now, so that it will hold for years to come.

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