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Review: The Surprising Power Of Family Meals

Miriam Weinstein (2005) The Surprising Power of Family Meals: How Eating Together Makes Us Smarter, Stronger, Healthier, and Happier. Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press L.C., 257pp.

Summary

This journalist and documentary filmmaker realized that family meals in the U.S. practically disappeared within one generation. So she took a careful look at research from the fields of substance abuse and addiction, education, anthropology and psychology, linguistics, nutrition and family therapy.

the research that’s been accumulating from very, very disparate fields… shows how eating ordinary, average everyday supper with your family is strongly linked to lower incidence of bad outcomes such as teenage drug and alcohol use, and to good qualities like emotional stability. It correlates with kindergartners being better prepared to read. Regular family supper helps keep asthmatic kids out of hospitals. It discourages both obesity and eating disorders. It supports your staying more connected to your extended family, your ethnic heritage and your community of faith. The things we are likely to discuss at the supper table anchor our children more firmly in the world. (pp. 1-2)

Weinstein is comparing reports of evening ritual loss in the U.S. to evening dinners she experienced while living in Paris. Both parents there worked until five pm; mother shopped for meat, fresh vegetables and bread on her way home. Children helped in the preparation, and then there was a leisurely meal with plenty of conversation. The author also remembers her own family meals-as do many her age who, during work on this book, recounted clear memories of suppertime. 

The author also went to important studies. Clinical psychologists at Duke University teamed up with a multi-disciplinary group at Emory. MARIAL, the Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life for a combined study called: Of Ketchup and Kin: Dinnertime Conversations as a Major Source of Family Knowledge, Family Adjustment, and Family Resilience. Analyses of family meal talks are very insightful.

More quantitative data came from The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. Since 1996 they have been running studies of some 1200 teens (12-17) and their parents, research that included all kinds of variables and factored out race, class and ethnicity. The goal was to distinguish key factors in youth
who engaged in destructive behaviors and those who did not. The results came as a surprise. “They found that, when it came to predicting kids’ behavior, eating dinner with family was more important than church attendance, more important even than grades at school.” (34)

The study has continued each year. In 2003, CASA reported: “The number (of teens) who have regular family dinners drops by 50% as their substance abuse risk increases sevenfold.” (34) Here are some further striking results:

  • Compared to teens who have family dinners twice a week or less, teens who have dinner with their families five or more nights a week are 32% likelier never to have tried cigarettes, 45% likelier never to have tried alcohol, 24% likelier never to have smoked pot.
  • Teens who rarely have family meals are twice as likely to say they are bored.
  • Teens who have frequent meals are half as likely to be highly stressed as those who rarely have family dinners.
  • Those who have frequent family meals are twice as likely to get A’s in their schoolwork.

Haphazard family eating plans and reliance on fast foods and take-outs are understandable in light of parental busyness, the packed schedules of kids, their instant and varied communications with friends, and constant advertisements for fast and packaged foods.

Weinstein has some wise things to say about ritual.

Rituals set ordinary gestures and events into bold relief…. Repeated night after night, they become the road maps of our lives.

Ritual is about boundaries and transitions, easing us from one time, or activity, or mood, to another.

Rituals illustrate what we believe…. The currency of ritual is separation. We separate ourselves from other people, other activities.

Some aspects of ritual are set in stone, while others are fluid as water… Above all, rituals give form to relationships…. Not all supper rituals are fun… but rituals have great power for smoothing over the rough spots, helping us to regroup
and heal. (14-17)

There is much more to be said about mealtime as ritual. It is a time for remembering the past, processing what going on in each member’s daily experience, and perhaps sharing dreams for the future. The average child will bring up six subjects during a comfortable meal.  But what we must also remember, and what’s emphasized in this book (20), is that the very possibilities of family dinner are under powerful attack from contemporary American society, an attack that
could make family meals impossible and obsolete.

The good news in this book is that a few churches and several towns in the U.S. are trying to do something about this “crisis.” Along with the book’s continual stories, we visit three cities with the author. Wayzata, Minnesota is a fast-paced suburb of Minneapolis. An organization there, Putting Families First (PFF) is taking seriously a 2000 study by the Council of Economic Advisors to the President called “Teens and Their Parents in the 21st Century.” This largest federally funded study of American teenagers “found a strong association between regular family meals (five or more dinners per week with a parent) and academic success, psychological adjustment, and lower rates of alcohol use, drug use, early sexual behavior, and suicidal risk.” (185) High aspirations of this program have been reduced to more realistic goals as they grapple with powerful social and personal resistance to putting family time above other individual ego and organizational priorities. Sports, as community entertainment, family pride, entry to college scholarships, coaches and school’s competitiveness, can ride roughshod over family needs and agendas.

Stories from Ridgewood, NJ (note Ready, Set, Relax!) and Cambridge, MA provide further demonstration of concrete steps toward family time in the face of mounting contrary pressures. Many practical suggestions fill the final chapter of this book. It concludes on a spiritual note, pointing “families to a place called home.” (247) Added are two helpful Appendices: A selection of mostly religious blessings for meals, and “What to Talk About,” samples of mealtime discussion starters.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. How important do you consider this book review and issue?
  2. Do you think it’s possible that family mealtime and talks together around a meal could be one of the most important solutions to youthful violence, drug abuse, and self-injurious behaviors?
  3. What criticisms of this article, or what questions and comments do you have?
  4. Who, in our society, do you think most needs to read and consider this book?
  5. What do you think, practically, can actually be done to change the loss of evening meals together? Or, do you consider this relatively unimportant these days?
  6. If you have been positively impressed by this article and topic, what do you plan to do about it?

Implications

  1. So many youth leaders, pastors and teachers talk about the problems of kids, that it all starts in the home. But there’s been too little attention to what is actually going on in families today-the pressures on it and the less-than-satisfactory compromises and solutions being taken by families.
  2. Nancy Gibbs wrote an article for Time Magazine, 12 June 2006, “the Magic of Family Meal: The statistics are clear: kids who dine with the folks are healthier, happier and better students, which is why a dying tradition is coming back.” In this article she refers to the CASA study noted above, citing additional alarming statistics (55% of 12-yr-olds say they have dinner with a parent each night, vs. 26% of 17-yr-olds.) She quotes Robin Fox, an anthropologist at Rutgers; “A meal is about civilizing children. It’s about teaching them to be a member of
    their culture.” She also adds to a point made by Weinstein: when kids help prepare a meal, there is more and deeper conversation, they are more likely to enjoy good food, and the process seems to help their self-esteem.
  3. There are signs of a conscious reversal against the demise of family meals. Parents are beginning to get the message: a family that eats together is more likely to stay together and be healthier in the process.

Dean Borgman
© 2017 CYS

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