National Family Day: How eating together as a family can benefit kids their entire lives

When it comes to family dinners, kids are getting more out of it than you might think!

On the fourth Monday of September, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse encourages families everywhere to gather around the table and enjoy a meal together. Celebrated this year on September 27, National Family Day asks parents to pick up or make dinner, put the phones and tablets away, and strike up a conversation with their kids at the dinner table — all in the hopes of preventing substance abuse among teens.

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Dinner and drug use may seem unrelated. But studies have shown that teens who eat meals with their families are less likely to abuse substances. They also tend to do better in school and eat healthier — benefits that are sure to make a lifelong impact.

Established in 2001, Family Day aims to create a reliable, involved and interested presence in the lives of children — not through big, flashy gestures, but small, everyday moments.

“The simple, little things you do with your kids make a big difference,” says the Center on Addiction. “These activities create strong, healthy relationships that can prevent future drug use.”

What is the connection between family meals and substance use?

According to data from CASA Columbia’s report, compared to teens who have frequent family dinners (five to seven per week), those who have infrequent family dinners (fewer than three per week) are almost four times likelier to use tobacco; more than twice as likely to use alcohol; 2 ½ times likelier to use marijuana and almost four times likelier to say they expect to try drugs in the future.

Consistently conversing at the dinner table reportedly helps kids better connect to their parents, forming a stronger relationship with them. The stronger and healthier this relationship, the less likely kids are to use marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco as teenagers.

“National Family Day is exactly the kind of movement that I can actually see having an impact on rates of substance use and addiction, especially in young people,” says Daniel Cornide, a licensed mental health counselor with All In Solutions.

“As a professional, it is not uncommon for the substance use disorder patients I interact with to come from families that were dysfunctional in one way or another during their formative years,” Cornide goes on to say. 

“It’s absolutely worth questioning whether or not they would have started experimenting with drugs during adolescence had their home life been stable and had their relationships with their parents been secure.”

What are some other benefits of consistently eating as a family?

In addition to reducing teens’ chances of abusing substances, consistent family meals also help kids develop healthier relationships with food.

According to the Center for Discovery, family meals can help lower the risk of kids developing eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. By normalizing eating and by modeling intuitive eating, parents can help their children foster positive relationships with food.

But the benefits of family meals stretch beyond the dining room table. By consistently connecting with their family, children develop life skills and confidence. And they’ll carry these attributes with them into school, future jobs, and even relationships.

“Studies have also shown a link between regular family meals and positive body image, increased self-esteem, scholastic achievement, and reduced risk of depression in teens,” says Dr. Lauren Kerwin, licensed psychologist and associate professor at UCLA.

Eating together and positively conversing as a family can also create cherished experiences that kids will appreciate their whole lives.

“Families who share mealtimes do not only eat together, but they also create memories that children can hold on to and look back on when life becomes too complicated,” says Dr. Debanjan Banerje, Consultant Geriatric Psychiatrist at Doctor Spring.

“Children who regularly eat with their family are more resilient, steadfast, and confident. These characteristics allow them to remain strong even when faced with social problems, anxiety and peer pressure.”

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What’s the best way to talk to your kids at the dinner table?

As the official Family Day website states, it’s important to build communication early; if your kids aren’t talking to you about their day when they’re eight or 10, it will be much harder to start at ages 12 to 14.

According to Dr. Kerwin, one important communication tip is to remain present. “Being present includes: not checking your phone; maintaining eye contact; listening attentively while your kids are talking and validating as much as you can.”

While it might be difficult to put away your phone, doing so will help your children feel valued and heard. This further increases their desire to open up to you.

Another essential part of building communication is to establish a “safe zone,” says Zach Dorfman, certified alcohol and drug counselor with A Life After Recovery.

“Parents need to establish and demonstrate (as an unspoken rule) that they will never break the ‘safe zone’ at the table by calling out wrongdoing of the day or violating the dinner table with conflict. The issues can be tackled at other times and in other ways. The dinner table is a place to celebrate family,” says Dorfman.

Additionally, it’s important to be open and receptive when children or teens are expressing themselves. If your kids feel comfortable opening up at the dinner table, allow the conversation to blossom without too much instruction.

“Initially, parents need to simply take time to listen with no judgment or trying to fix it; to understand, empathize. Resist the urge to weigh in. In time, you will feel the liberty to speak about trauma, abuse, addiction, sex, and all these difficult topics,” says Dorfman.

According to a study published by North Dakota State University, fostering a safe space for thoughtful and engaging conversations gives children the opportunity to learn how to ask and respond to questions; a time to practice manners, listening, and taking turns in conversations; and a chance to share stories and ideas from each family member’s experiences.

How can families observe National Family Day?

Celebrating National Family Day doesn’t require an expensive meal or a fancy homemade dish. Whether your food comes from the drive-thru, the frozen food aisle, or your Grandma Myrtle’s recipe book, all that matters is that it gathers your family around the dinner table.

“Magic that happens at family dinners isn’t the food on the table, but the conversations and family engagement around the table,” says the Family Day Parent Toolkit.

During dinner, ask one another fun and engaging questions to start the conversation — and commemorate the day by taking a group picture at the table.

You can also play a fun game as you’re eating — like “Would you rather?” or “Two Truths and a Tale.” Everyone can continue to enjoy their food while still chatting and engaging.

But mealtime isn’t just about eating. Before dinner, invite your kids into the kitchen to help prep the food, or ask them to set the table. After dinner, make a fun family activity out of cleaning up the dishes.

According to the Center on Addiction, by getting kids involved in every step of the meal, and doing so consistently, you’ll help them feel like they’re a part of a team — which in turn makes them more likely to turn to their family unit when significant problems crop up.

When you’re done celebrating National Family Day, commit to having another meal together before the week is out. Continue to prioritize family meals until it becomes a consistent routine in your household.

What are some helpful tools for families looking to better connect?

The official Family Day website is full of helpful tips and resources — such as their Parent Toolkit, which includes conversation starters, simple activity ideas, and printable coloring sheets and prompts for the whole family.

Partnership to End Addiction also provides helpful ways to connect and communicate with your teen and support tools for parents.

No matter how your family celebrates National Family Day, or what food you share, the message of the dinner table is simple: we are a unit, and you are loved.

So this September 27, put away those phones, gather around the table as a family unit, and remind one another just how loved and special you are.

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