It seems like settled knowledge: Having dinner together as a family on most nights of the week brings a host of benefits for kids. But does it?
Past research has concluded there's a correlation between having family dinner and children who are less likely to drink alcohol, smoke, use recreational drugs, have eating disorders, be depressed, get pregnant as teens and be obese. That's pretty convincing on its own.
The seminal study related to these findings is the 2012 CASAColumbia survey, which concluded that teens who ate fewer than three family dinners per week were twice as likely to smoke, drink and get lower-than-average grades in school than teens who ate dinner five to seven times per week with their families.
With conclusions like that, who wouldn't try to make family dinner happen?
Family dinners may not be the magic ingredient we've been led to believe
But there are a few issues here, pointed out by the hosts of the new Pressure Cooker podcast, food journalists Jane Black and Elizabeth Dunn. Pressure Cooker focuses on issues relating to kids and food, and their first episode dove directly into the family dinner debate.
"For good reason," Black tells Yahoo Life. "The need for regular family dinners is a classic example of the kind of advice that parents, but especially mothers, hear, absorb and then feel terribly guilty about being unable to deliver to their families, even when so much is stacked against them."
Their points: The CASAColumbia conclusions were more of a "white paper" — a report that just published the survey's findings — instead of a true peer-reviewed research study. The survey also didn't control for the kids' age or socio-economic statuses.
It also implied that the relationship between family dinner and these benefits were causal, but in actuality could have been just correlated, influenced by multiple outside factors other than having family dinner together.
"Our research for the podcast made very clear to us that the link between healthy, happy kids and regular family dinner was much looser than we had been led to believe by media reports, and even some of the studies themselves," says Black, adding that families who are likely to have dinner together most nights are also the ones more likely to participate in other healthy behaviors that lead to positive outcomes — exercise, taking vitamins, eating a balanced diet. It's not necessarily that these behaviors are each beneficial on their own, but together they make a big difference.
Experts say, quality of interactions matter more than quantity of interactions
Black and Dunn spoke to two major experts about family dinner, and both Kelly Musick, a professor of public policy and sociology at Cornell University, and Anne Fishel, a family therapist, professor at Harvard University and co-founder of the Family Dinner Project, agree: Spending quality family time when everyone is relaxed and ready for fun is much more important than the number of dinners you have together each night, especially if stress levels are high after a difficult day and the experience is likely to be less-than-positive.
Margaret Mair, a teacher from Salt Lake City, Utah, is a mother of two and aims to have family dinner at least once a week with her children, but recognizes the need for malleability in their execution. "Our son plays hockey two nights a week, my daughter dances up to three nights a week," she says. "Sometimes it's just easier to make the meal and eat in front of the TV or with just my husband and I at the table than it is to make everyone sit. However we do it, it's important that dinner is a positive end to the day rather than forcing it to be something it isn't"
Dunn, who has shouldered guilt for not being able to make family dinners happen regularly in her own home, says, "One thing we learned from Kelly Musick was that if getting everyone to the table together means that you're over-tired, hangry, stressed out and not able to have time together that feels like bonding time, there won't be positive consequences for your kids. There's no point in forcing it."
Bottom line: It doesn't have to be dinner
The other significant issue is scheduling and the assumption of a two-parent household, where one partner gets home from work and can entertain the kids while the other partner fixes dinner, sets the table and brings it all together effortlessly.
"If you're a single parent and working two jobs to keep the family afloat, family dinners are just not going to be an option for you," the hosts point out in the episode. If you work nights and your partner works the day shift, it's not going to work out, and that's a source of guilt for many parents. Same goes for extracurricular activities, like sports, which often have weeknight games and practices that can coincide with family dinner time.
Dan Wunderlich, a pastor in Sanford, Fla. and father to a 4 year old, is married to a college professor, so their schedules don't always line up during the school year. "All three of us aren't always home and available," he says. "When it's just my daughter and I, which is one or two nights a week during the main college semesters, we frequently FaceTime different relatives to add to the family table."
Leah Stein-Fredbeck, a nurse in Libertyville, Ill., also has a variable schedule that doesn't always allow for family dinner every night of the week. "On nights I work, I sometimes don't get home until 8 p.m. I don't force my kids to sit down with us for dinner, though," she says. "My 5 year old will comply if I ask her, but my almost-3 year old eats much better if he can just graze and play at the same time. By that time of the day, I'm out of fight, so I'll just go with whatever will get them to actually eat."
The reality is that it's not about logging the time. It's not that any family dinner is better than no family dinner. It's about the quality time you spend together, what the hosts of Pressure Cooker call "connection points," where you can check in with your kids and share experiences, feelings and laughter together. Positive and meaningful engagement is the key, and if that's not around the dinner table, that's OK.
Fishel says, "Food is what brings everyone to the table, but it's conversation and having a good time that's the magic. There's so few opportunities during the day for families to connect, so that's why these opportunities are important to check in with their kids, tell stories about their days, share a joke. This is what's important."
Letting go of family dinner has helped Dunn release her parental guilt around the practice She now focuses on times like driving the kids to school or summer camp as their time to connect, and carves out quality time during the day with her children.
"I make a point of being the one to drive the older kids to camp or school in the morning, and we've had more random, funny, memorable conversations in the car than in pretty much any other setting," she says. "Since I work from home, I also often drop in before my youngest son's afternoon nap and read to him. It's not huge chunks of time — just 15 minutes or half an hour — but these are things we've all started looking forward to."
Black says she has adopted the same approach. "Breakfast is often good, and requires far less cooking [than dinner], or a bedtime story and chat," she says. "My daughter and I also both have a sweet tooth, so we often make time to go get ice cream or a treat once a week so we have time to talk then. Even though it's not same time and same place, it's the same event, which gives it a sense of ritual."
The bottom line for the hosts of Pressure Cooker, and for the experts they interviewed, is this: Give yourself a break. The benefits of "family dinner" come from talking and sharing. No matter when or where you connect with your children, you'll reap the rewards.
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