October 26, 2011

Eat Together, Live Well Together


hat’s so great about eating with my family?” asked a 14-year-old high school student while checking his e-mail on an iPad. “That’s something we used to do when I was younger; and besides, it’s for those who have nothing else to do.”
“I rarely eat with my family,” adds a classmate just before answering a call on his cell phone. “I don’t have the time.”
Is this the new trend that confronts us in our fast-paced, high-tech, digital, multitasking society? With increasingly busy schedules and hectic lifestyles, is there anything we can do to get back to the “good ol’ days,” when spending time together as a family at mealtimes was the norm? And is this even worth worrying about?
These and other related questions may frequently flash through our minds, but most of those who are inclined to make changes feel helpless to do so. If parents and other adults don’t make time to spend with their families, however, the consequences can be huge.
2011 1530 page18 linkAs the saying goes: “The family that eats together, lives well together.” So let’s explore how even family meals can help guard our children’s health, improve their emotional well-being, increase their academic status, reduce their chances of engaging in risky behaviors, and strengthen their walk of faith—even in the twenty-first century.
Mealtime should not be simply an event in which food is prepared and consumed; it should be also an opportunity for discussion and interaction. Delving into a broad range of topics can lead to family conversations that will help to develop quality relationships within the family. In order for this to happen, however, it’s necessary to avoid distractions. So turn off the television and cell phones and put your focus entirely on your children and broader family.
Here are some good reasons for making the move toward meaningful family meals.
Combating Obesity
One study conducted on adolescents indicated that those who watched television during meals were found to have lower intakes of vegetables, calcium-rich food, and grains. They also had higher intakes of soft drinks, compared to adolescents not watching television during meals. They concluded that family meals during adolescence may have a lasting positive influence on dietary quality and meal patterns in young adulthood.1
Another study on obesity reported that “the family meal setting has the potential to substantially impact the dietary intake of children and may provide an important avenue for obesity prevention. However, opportunities for families to have meals together have been negatively affected by changes in our society, and data suggest that the frequency of family meals may be declining.”2
One such change that affects childhood obesity is the ready and quick access to “fast foods.” The person in the family responsible for buying groceries has to avoid purchasing take-home fast foods (processed foods that can be cooked and prepared quickly). Research has reported that fast foods tend to include frequent servings of potato chips and soda, both of which are associated with obesity among adolescents.3 Given that obesity is a large problem in families living in the developed world, it’s essential that we do all that is possible to avoid foods associated with excessive weight gain.
In research among children and youth attending alternative schools (schools with curricula designed for students at risk for academic failure, from problematic home environments, or with specialized teaching needs), students who reported never eating family meals were more likely to be overweight, to eat less fruit and fewer breakfasts, and to be more depressed.4
Clearly, much scientific data is available that corroborates that family meals are associated with more healthful meals and therefore less obesity. Think about it: obesity is a severe problem, and eating family meals gives you one simple strategy that can have a beneficial effect in preventing it.
Emotional Health and Academic Performance
In the face of such busy family schedules, we should do all we can to ensure that our children enjoy academic success. Can eating meals together help in this area, too?
2011 1530 page18A program called Project EAT (Eating Among Teens) explored the association between the frequency of family meals and the psychosocial well-being of adolescents.5 Data analysis from this research showed that the frequency of family meals was associated with having a higher academic performance. Another study reported similar findings; teens in that study who reported eating with their families were more likely to have higher grades in school and go to college.6 In an analysis of research that we [Hopkins and McBride] are conducting at the present time, high school students who are present for at least three family meals per week are nearly twice as likely to get A’s in school.
Barbara Mayfield of Purdue University would agree that family meals improve students’ grades. She reported that “a Reader’s Digest survey of more than 2,000 high school seniors compared academic achievement with family characteristics. Eating meals with their family was a stronger predictor of academic success than whether they lived with one or both parents.”7 Without a doubt, we all want our children to succeed. Doing something as simple as eating meals together has been shown to improve test scores and grades, even when the family situation is less than ideal because of divorce or separation.
Family Meals and High-Risk Behaviors Among Adolescents
The issue of risky behaviors is global. No society or culture is exempt from children and youth facing huge behavioral and emotional risks with potentially severe health consequences. Parents are almost universally in agreement: they want to keep their kids away from these dangers, and, fortunately, family meals can assist them in this area, too.
Studies indicate that more than half of teens who don’t eat dinner with their parents have sexual relations by age 15 or 16. This rate decreases to 32 percent when there are family meals in the home. Teens who have meals with their families are also less likely to have suicidal thoughts or suicidal attempts, and are less likely to ever be suspended from school.8
Research shows that family meals are associated with less substance abuse. One such study reported the frequency of family meals also was associated with less theft and reduced interest in gang membership.9 In another study with similar findings it was reported that family meals were associated with a lower likelihood of tobacco and alcohol use.10 Parents should be encouraged by these findings because they point out that there are indeed things they can do to help protect their children from risk.
2011 1530 page18We all can benefit by learning how to talk to our kids, especially at mealtime. “This year’s CASA study (from Columbia University) demonstrates that the magic that happens at family dinners isn’t the food on the table, but the conversations around it. 11 Family dinners relate to family bonding, which relates to significantly higher rates of pro-social behavior and lower rates of all types of risk behavior.”
Faith at the Table
Children begin to form their image of God at an early age based on their experiences and relationships with parents and other significant adults in their lives. They observe and are affected by how these adults live out their relationship with God. Marjorie Thompson, author of Family: The Forming Center, says that “the way we relate to each other is the most important spiritual discipline in the life of a family.”12 Research by the Search Institute confirms that the most significant religious influence on children is not what happens at church, but what happens at home.13
Eating together provides a time for bonding, stimulating discussion, and faith talk. Deuteronomy 6 says that if we want to pass on faith, we’ll be more intentional and deliberate about creating rhythms in our homes and talking about our faith. The simple event of sitting at home and having a meal together becomes an important time when beliefs and values are both developed and practiced.
So do it—eat with your kids!

1 Shira Feldman, Marla E. Eisenberg, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, and Mary Story, “Associations between watching TV during family meals and dietary intake among adolescents,” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 39, no. 5 (September/October 2010): 257-263.
2 Jayne A. Fulkerson, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Peter J. Hannan, and Mary Story, “Family meal frequency and weight status among adolescents: Cross-sectional and Five-year longitudinal Associations,” Obesity 16, no. 11 (August 2008): 2529-2534.
3 Kerri N. Boutelle, Jayne A. Fulkerson, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Mary Story, and Simone A. French, “Fast Food for Family Meals: Relationships With parent and Adolescent Food intake, Home Food Availability, and Weight Status,” Public Health and Nutrition 10: 16-23.
4 Jayne A. Fulkerson, Martha Y. Kubik, Mary Story, Leslie Lytle, and Chrisa Arcan, “Are there nutritional and other benefits associated with family meals Among At-Risk Youth?” Journal of Adolescent Health 45, no. 4 (October 2009): 389-395.
5 Marla E. Eisenberg, Rachel E. Olson, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Mary Story, and Linda H. Bearinger, “Correlations Between Family Meals and Psychosocial Well-being Among Adolescents,” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 158, no. 8 (August 2004): 792-796.
6 Council of Economic Advisers, “Teens and their parents in the Twenty-first Century: An Examination of Trends in Teen Behavior and the Role of parental involvement,” accessed Nov. 18, 2010, and available at http://clinton3.nara.gov/WH/EOP/CEA/html/Teens_Paper_Final.pdf.
7 Barbara J. Mayfield, “Family Meals Fact Sheet,” accessed Nov. 18, 2010, and available at www.arlingtonva.us/Departments/HumanServices/PublicHealth/SchoolHealth/file65896.pdf.
8 Council of Economic Advisers, “Teens and their parents in the Twenty-first Century: An Examination of Trends in Teen Behavior and the Role of Parental Involvement,” accessed Nov. 18, 2010, and available at http://clinton3.nara.gov/WH/EOP/CEA/html/Teens_Paper_Final.pdf.
9 Bisakha Sen, “The Relationship Between Frequency of Family Dinner and Adolescent problem Behaviors After Adjusting for other Family Characteristics,” Journal of Adolescence 33, no. 1 (February 2010): 187-196.
10 James White and Emma Halliwell, “Alcohol and Tobacco use during Adolescence: The Importance of the Family Mealtime Environment,” Journal of Health Psychology 15, no. 4 (May 2010): 526-532.
11 National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, “The Importance of Family Dinners VI,” Sept. 22, 2010, accessed Nov. 18, 2010, and available at www.casacolumbia.org/?templates/PressReleases.aspx?articleid=606&zone?id=79.
12 Marjorie J. Thompson, Family the Forming Center: A Vision of the Role of Family in Spiritual Formation (Upper Room Publishing, 2010), p. 59.
13 Search Institute, “Effective Christian Education: A National Study of Protestant Congregations” (1990).

Gary L. Hopkins, M.D., Dr. P.H., is an associate director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department, and research professor for the department of Behavioral Science at Andrews University; Duane McBride, Ph.D., is professor and chair of the department of behavioral science, and executive director of the Institute for Prevention of Addictions at Andrews University; Shelley Bacon, M.A., is AdventistLive distance learning coordinator for the Upper Columbia Conference; Daniel D. Saugh, M. Div., M.S.A.-C.I.D., serves as a pastor, military chaplain, and public health educator in Ontario, Canada; Julie Weslake, M.A., is director of Children’s Ministries at the South Pacific Division. Her passion is to enable every child to be a disciple of Jesus. This article was published October 27, 2011.