Apart from providing an opportunity to bond over a meal, sitting down in a semi-formal setting around a table and sharing discussion can prepare children for school group settings and enhance social skills.
“It provides a model for socialization during eating. It can teach children manners and they learn how to have a conversation,” says Dr. Jessica Hoffman, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of counseling and applied educational psychology at Bouve College of Health Sciences at Northeastern University.
“It’s an opportunity for children to expand their vocabulary and speech skills,” she continues. “When children listen to parents and older siblings talk about their day, or items in the news, it helps develop language skills and to develop critical perspectives.”
Having family dinners also provides parents with an additional tool to keep a check on their children’s progress at school, and can be an important daily link to their children’s classroom.
“Family dinnertime is an opportunity for parents to monitor what’s going on in their children’s lives and spot any possible academic problems,” adds Dr. Hoffman. But if the matter is a personal one, it’s best to discuss it in private. “Conversation should always be kept in a family context and be sensitive to who is there. Explosive topics should be kept for one-on-one situations,” she says.
Putting family dinners on the schedule also provides structure for you and your family. But be realistic — it’s OK if schedules don’t allow for togetherness every night.
“It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing,” advises Dr. Hoffman. “Do it as often as you can without stressing about it — but the more family dinners you share, the better.”
Dr. Hoffman advises getting children involved in preparing a meal, too.
“There are so many skills that cooking helps improve. There’s math involved in measuring and fractions. You’re dividing for recipes and calculating amounts. There’s reading and learning how to follow directions. There’s sequencing and coordination. Plus, kids are more likely to eat what they have helped cook.”
» Research in The American Academy of Pediatrics found that kids who have regular family dinners experience a lower incidence of obesity.
Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that kids who eat family dinners get better grades in school and are less likely to try drugs or alcohol.
A recent data review by Rutgers suggests that family dinners can boost produce consumption and reduce feelings of depression in teens.
Source: The Kids Cook Monday, whose toolkit for family dinner planning is available online at www.thekidscookmonday.org