Health Column: Lessons from the dinner table

The dining room table set for the holiday dinner at Jack and Patricia Orben's Aquebogue home. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)
The dining room table set for a dinner at Jack and Patricia Orben’s Aquebogue home. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

With so few hours in the day and so much to accomplish, the daily activity of eating dinner as a family can sometimes fall by the wayside.

But nutrition and mental-health experts agree that it’s one activity that shouldn’t be neglected as family dinners offer much more than a full stomach.

“When children are eating frequently as a family they’re learning about a variety of foods, appropriate portion sizes and, as you’d expect, there tends to be more veggies available,” said Leah Holbrook, coordinator of Stony Brook University’s graduate nutrition program. “It’s not a big leap to say these things help decrease the risk of being overweight and set the standard for eating later in life.”

According to Cornell University, children who eat dinner with family are 12 percent less likely to be overweight, 24 percent more likely to eat healthier foods and 35 percent less likely to develop a problem with eating disorders— such as bingeing, fasting or using diet pills — which Ms. Holbrook said are now becoming more popular among males.

While the benefits of family dinners for children have been studied significantly, the benefits for adults have not, she explained.

“There is the likelihood that meals parents are serving their kids are healthier than something they might get as takeout,” she said, adding that when talking among family at the dinner table, you tend to eat slowly and consume the appropriate number of calories.

Experts say the conversation that accompanies a family dinner has other benefits as well.

“I think a lot of parents tend to think their kids don’t have a lot to say,” said Dr. Harold Pass, a professor in the department of psychiatry at Stony Brook. “But they really do have incredible things to share.”

Studies have shown that all children, from preschoolers to teenagers, benefit greatly from having a chance to decompress and talk about their day, he said, adding that it also gives parents time and opportunity to hone in on issues that may be bothering their kids.

Even more important, he explained, family dinners can improve children’s ability to listen and participate in a dialogue — communications skills that aren’t as easy to acquire in today’s digital world of cellphones, television and video games.

Dr. Pass said interaction at the dinner table “really becomes a template for how that child is going to interact with other people in their lives. I’ve seen that, in some of my younger patients, they have lost a certain ability to hold a conversation and they often don’t make eye contact.”

Children who are exposed to family dinners also tend to have a higher academic performance, according to researchers at Cornell University.

“More families are seeing family dinner as a burden, rather than it putting money into the bank,” Dr. Pass said. “It can be just 15 or 20 minutes to get the benefits.”

Ms. Holbrook said the easiest way to incorporate family meals into a busy household routine is to “take the thinking out of it.”

Find a series of 10 or 12 time-efficient recipes, such as make-your-own tacos or pizza, and put them in a weekly rotation.

“You use the same two checklists for grocery shopping every week,” she said. “You will start to be able to do it in less and less time.”

When you’re really busy and takeout is the only option, she recommends preparing a side salad or vegetables to give the meal added nutrition and a homemade feel.

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