Is the traditional family dinner a thing of the past? Is it overvalued as an institution that was once a cornerstone of the American home but has become obsolete with changing times? In today's households where both parents go to work and kids have busy schedules with school, homework and an array of afternoon activities, finding time for a gathering at the table seems all but impossible.
Yet, studies have shown time and again that eating together has multiple benefits for everyone involved, but especially for children, and not only for nutritional purposes but in many other aspects as well.
According to a number of reports issued by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University(CASA), children who eat at least five times a week with their family are at lower risk of developing poor eating habits, weight problems or alcohol and substance dependencies, and tend to perform better academically than their peers who frequently eat alone or away from home.
To be sure, the iconic family meal, as for example depicted by the painter Norman Rockwell, came only into American life in the mid-20th century. In the '60s and '70s, profound social, economic and technological changes quickly dissolved that short-lived idyll. Restaurant visits, take-out and TV dinners have since become the norm rather than the exception.
There are indications, however, that the old customs are coming back, at least in parts. According to the latest CASA reports, 59 percent of surveyed families said they ate dinner together at least five times a week, a significant increase from 47 percent in 1998. Whatever drives this trend, it is a development that should be welcomed.
Eating together as a family is not just about food and nutrition. It is about civilizing children, about teaching them how to become members of their society and culture, says Robin Fox, a professor who teaches anthropology at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Food has become such an ubiquitous commodity, so easily and cheaply available, we no longer appreciate its significance, he says. We have to rediscover its importance and its value. Sharing a meal with loved ones should be considered a special event, he says, that can almost take on the form of a ritual or a ceremony, as it was practiced by our ancestors for whom finding food was a constant struggle.
Besides appreciation for the value of food and the work that goes into preparing it, there are also many social elements that come into play when families share meals, says Miriam Weinstein, author of "The Surprising Power of Family Meals". The dinner table can be the perfect environment where kids learn how to conduct conversations, observe good manners, serve others, listen, solve conflicts and compromise.
Of course, there is no guarantee that the simple act of eating at home surrounded by family will save children from developing unhealthy lifestyles or making regrettable choices down the road. It may not make them more virtuous or socially more responsible. But it can lay the groundwork for a lot of things that point them in the right direction.
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