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The family dinner: Are there no limits to its power?

February 15, 2010 |  5:47 pm

Meatloaf Tami Dennis recently blogged on the issue of correlation and causation and how often the two are confused in stories about scientific studies (and sometimes in the study papers themselves).

I would like to nominate my own favorite: the all-powerful Family Dinner.

Reading about the family dinner -- this article, for example -- you might wonder what the family dinner can't do.  According to various accounts, that dinner will get you ... kids who are less likely to smoke and drink. Kids less apt to partake of pot or have sex. Girls less likely to have boyfriends more than two years older than they are. Kids who are less likely to be depressed and who get better grades in school. Fewer eating disorders. Less suicidal ideation. In younger kids, better vocabularies. Oh, and as reported last week, less obesity. All this by sitting down and eating dinner with the rug rats a few times a week.

I'd hazard that the family dinner holds no special magic but is just a marker for a family that is, on average, more functional and engaged with the children. Such families, when considered as a group, are probably more likely to do lots of things that matter more -- provide a structured home life, pay attention to how kids are doing in school, whether they've done their homework, whether they are running into emotional difficulties, what their diet is like and where they are at midnight on a school night. The parents may be more likely to get along with each other and have good relationships with their offspring.The parents may be less likely to be run off their feet with work demands.

The best candidate for a cause-and-effect link might seem to be in combating obesity. We all know that restaurant meals can be astoundingly high in calories, and a family meal can serve as a setting to teach kids to eat a little bit better, experiment with foods and consume fewer calories at a sitting. Still, it'll only do that if you cook meals that aren't junk. Tater Tots and fried chicken strips may not hold the same power. And it's only one meal in the day.

So yes, the family dinner is a nice thing (though a former acquaintance whose father had everyone bone up on a topic for intellectual discussion each dinner might dissent from this view). But isn't imbuing it with so much power like trying save a troubled marriage by moving to Massachusetts because the divorce rate is low there?

I'm not the only one puzzled by breathless "family dinner" reporting. Here's a blog I found on the same topic.

-- Rosie Mestel

Photo credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times

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Comments (23)

As the owner of Camp Shane (a weight loss camp for kids) and someone who has been on the front line of the battle against obesity since 1968, I've learned that one of the most important tools we have is the family dinner.

Parents, both as gatekeepers of the family kitchen and overseers of their children's routines, have the ability to steer their children towards that healthier weight. According to experts at Ohio State and Temple Universities (, limiting kids' television watching, making sit-down family meals a priority, and ensuring kids get at least 10. 5 hours of sleep a night results in a 40% reduction in the risk of childhood obesity.

Just as the mother and father gave their children life, it is within their power to help make sure that life is a long and healthy one.

David Ettenberg
Camp Shane (Children's weight loss and fitness camp)
Shane Diet Resorts (Adults & young adults)

So, you are saying I can't bury my head in my computer all night long except for 30 minutes of dinner and still get a physically fit, relatively happy child who will wait to have sex? Who knew?

While I agree that just having family dinner itself isn't a magic cure all that will instantly fix your kids, spouse, marriage and cure cancer, I do think that you've missed a key point. Sure families that are more connected are more likely to already regularly have dinner together, but I would venture to say it's a good step in the right direction to get a family moving that direction if it's not in a good place. By committing to sit down and have some protected time as a group to get to know each other better and get more engaged in each other's lives, I think even the most dysfunctional family has a chance at moving in a better direction.

I don't think it's fair to down play the importance of children actually seeing their father or mother make family time a higher priority than getting one more thing done at the office. The only way you build connections with anyone is to spend time together even if you have to fake it at first.

These studies are never really specific on the quality of the family dinner... (not the meal), but I mean it almost implies that all you need is the dinner and things will be grand! (laugh!). My folks loved the family dinner when I was growing up. No matter what, we had to be there. Then when we were it usually turned to arguments or name calling. Sometimes just complete silence.

I did get good grades in school, but as far as depression, use of pot and some of the other things listed... well I guess I can thank family dinners for the good grades. haha.

Finally some critical thinking about these kind of studies. I do realize that when I eat with some company I eat more slowly and maybe less, that might help fight obesity, no?

Thank you for this. I had dinner with my parents every damned night and found it stultifying. Additionally, my grades weren't particularly good, and I was overweight. My guess is that a lot of things go into a functioning family, and like breastfeeding the family dinner myth is too easy and one-size-fits-all to be meaningful.

Family dinners are highly overrated.

I hated every childhood dinner where my Dad played his "Clean Plate Club" trick; many was the night when I sat and sat (and sat!) at the table for one or two hours after everyone else was gone because I refused to eat something that remained on my plate.

And many was the night when we three kids had to endure yet another meal around the dinner table in stony and uncomfortable silence because my parents were fighting again, and their method of fighting was to not speak. For weeks on end.

Took me years of therapy to finally get to the bottom of why to this day I still don't like to sit down at a table and eat a meal. Give me a TV tray in the living room any day. Or better yet, standing up anywhere.

I make a home-cooked dinner for my family 5+ times a week with my children doing some of the cooking--and yes, I do work full time outside the home. Not all of my 3 children or my husband are there every night because of college or jobs, but they know they can be and I think that alone makes a difference. Lively conversation topics range from highlights of our day--school and work--to current events, religion (all points of view) and politics--and all with a large measure of laughter.

Our family dinners are well known among my children's friends as well as our "open table" policy. So much so, that we have their friends show up just before dinner just to say hello knowing they can join us. The very sad thing about this is that several of these kids (teenagers and college age) comment never had a home-made, sit-down dinner at a table with their own families--meals are either in the car, in front of the TV, at a restaurant, or at grandma's house.

My children are not perfect (they seem to not know about some of the statistics quoted in the article), but they value our time at the table, making it worth pushing through my own exhaustion at the end of the day to get a family dinner together.

You have the same link for each hyperlink - and I'm actually curious to read the first article referenced as "this article".

I think the family dinner is important and I very much miss it in my life. We had a family dinner growing up and now my husband works late and is used to munching at work. I miss not only the reason to cook a lovely dinner but the social and familial interaction that it brings. It's something I'd like to instill in my daughter and am afraid that it's going the way of the dodo.

I doubt that it causes better grades and less drinking and sex - but if done casually, and with a genuine interest - it can be satisfying physically but also emotionally and mentally.

And to "Catherine" : How is breastfeeding a myth? How is it that the body's own method of feeding could be anything but superior to something synthetic and mass-produced for profit??

And to "Barry" : Sounds just like I imagine my own family would be! Can I come over?? ;)

Family dinners are good. It is time for us to get back to the basics. Quality family time is key. I think that many of us get so wrapped up in work and leading a fast pace life, we tend to forget about the simple things.

Like so many things, how and why you do it matters. Parents who love their children quite naturally want to engage with them -- even when they're tired -- and quite naturally want to role model appropriate behaviors and choices for them as much as possible. Family dinner provides a plethora of opportunities for teaching successful life strategies, so it's no wonder that it can have such a huge impact on children...if, on the other hand, you have lousy parents, who are stupid and uncaring, family dinner probably can't help much.

Here is what I know. I was tortured at the family meal as a child. So, now that I have children and yes we all eat together every night, we encourage them to try it (but they don't have too) and if dinner wasn't to their liking then it is substituted with cereal, deli meat, etc. My kids eat a wide variety of foods from American, Cantonese, Indian, etc.

None of our kids are obese. They were all breastfed for YEARS.

We don't drink soda.

Candy (Hershey's Kisses, M & M's can usually be found in our house).

You won't find anything with "corn syrup". We don't use ketchup (no one likes it) and prefer salsa. All salad dressing are homemade since we find the after taste of corn syrup distasteful. (Don't believe me on this? Spend one week eating food without corn syrup and then try to go back to eating foods with corn syrup. You won't go back.)

All four kids are on honor roll. That's by their doing. All we ask is that they try and at least get a "C". They want to be on honor roll so they are always shooting for 98% or higher or all tests. This doesn't stress them out at all. They enjoy studying.

I've always been a stay-at-home mom. From Kindergarten on (since homework started) the kids have ALWAYS had a routine (that they started) and we encouraged and assisted.

1. They arrive home and get off the bus. I ask how their day went.

2. I go through their backpacks and unload paperwork while they eat their snack.

3. They do their homework, without being asked, because they don't like having anything hanging over their heads.

4. If they need help (now that they are in middle school they need help every day) I am around house doing various chores (laundry, preparing dinner, etc.) and am always just a few steps away so they have a person to go to immediately BEFORE frustration sets in.

5. After homework (which takes hours now) we usually sit down for the family meal. Together. After dinner, if someone hasn't finished their homework they start back up. My husband clears and cleans the kitchen (with the help of the other children who are done with homework) while I and the other child(ren) finish the homework.

6. We are usually done by 6:30 where we all sit down to watch the Simpsons (humor that we enjoy on an adult level and the kids enjoy on a kid level, never laughing when we are since they don't get a lot of jokes but still enjoying the show).

So, there it is. Our life and what we consider success starting from the beginning. Breast fed babies, family dinner, family television time, honor roll children, no soda, no religion, no drugs, no smoking, lots of candy but no obesity, stay-at-home mom and a dad that is home every night for dinner. By the way, dinner isn't always sitting down, sometimes the kids are at the stool and counter and dad and I are serving while standing and eating!

Oh, and even though we have four middle school girls, yikes! They don't have cell phones, don't text, and don't use facebook. And it's not even an argument.

We said, "You'll get a cell phone when you need one. Right now you should never be anywhere where there is no adult. The adult will have a cell phone."

They get it. They don't ask. They don't argue AND MOST IMPORTANTLY they see the problems that other girls have around them that DO HAVE cell phones, texting, and facebook pages.

So, bottomline? PARENTING - IT'S A JOB! 24/7 Every age needing more or less of something BUT ALWAYS NEEDING A GUIDANE!

The "Family Dinner" is just one duty on the list of job requirements.

Is the author a journalist? From what era? Are there editors anymore?
She writes "...I'd hazard that the family dinner....." Hazard? really?
'Hazard' is a weak transitional verb at best, and not truly applicable as used here. 99.9999% of the population would only know it as a noun. Used in this context within a mundane story about dinner, one must ask " who is her audience?" Is the educated reader supposed to think 'wow.... how erudite.. using 'hazard as verb' to talk about 'magical dinners'. LOL

The idea of the family dinner and sitting down for a schedule mealtime cannot be overstated. Mealtime has positive social implications as well as positive effects on overall health. There is a great blog posted on this topic on Focusing on mealtime is just one of the easy ways we, as a society, can increase our health and strengthen our family bonds.

Since we don't have alot of money our family (2 parents and 2 teenagers) lives in a two-bedroom apt. I work fulltime and make dinner when I get home at 5:30. My older child eats it right away because he leaves for an hour to meet a tutor at the local library. The younger one can usually be coaxed to eat a little later, once he is really hungry. My husband comes home slightly later and then he eats. I find it intriguing that the family dinner hypothesis comes up in the nineties during the growth of the McMansion craze. My point: We don't need to schedule time to be together at home. We are literally tripping over each other in our small living space. It would be interesting to see a small living space posited as a mechanism for guaranteeing family togetherness, but I doubt I'll see it soon.

My memories of the family dinner are one of complete horror. Maybe it was better when I was younger, I don't remember, but as a teen it was torture to be subjected to the painful repetition of ye olde family dynamic. I would jump at the first possible minute to "helpfully" clear the table and do the dishes, just to keep from going completely insane.

I think the correlation/causation is further blurred because a family that institutes family dinners might find themselves doing more of those good things simply because of that 30 minutes spent together as a family.

"Dinner" is just an excuse to make everyone drop what they are doing and come do something together. It kills multiple birds with one stone. Especially if you're having chicken.

@THX: Wow... Nothing to say about the article, but so much to say about the choice of a single word! Why is it wrong? The writer would "'hazard' [a guess] that the family dinner holds no special magic..." That's absolutely correct. I use hazard in that context. I've used the word for as long as I can remember. I'm only 40 years old, was an honor student throughout school with a 4.0 gpa and advanced placement in such subjects as history, math and ENGLISH.

Qualifications stated, I'd hazard that there is nothing wrong with the use of that word, and that it might EDUCATE the 99.9999% whose vocabulary might be less than par.

"Par," by the way, is a word that applies to more than the golf course - though 99.9999% of the population might not know that either... in case you wanted to hazard that I could be wrong in having used it in the above context.

Separately, the article had some valid points. The family dinner is certainly not a cure-all, but it doesn't hurt either, as long as the family itself is at least halfway functional, and amenable to the notion of it.

@Liz: Your small apartment is huge compared to our parents' and grandparents' standards! Two of my grandparents come from a group of 15 siblings, the other two from groups of 10 siblings. They didn't live in 20 room mansions, either. We're talking 3 bedrooms - one was for the parents and infants, the other two housed all the boys and all the girls. Private bathroom time didn't exist.

In this economy, we could be going back to that one day soon. Perhaps with this perspective, your 2 bedroom apartment IS a McMansion...

I think the family dinner idea came around not in response to the McMansion craze, but as a way to be together - and engaged in conversation - to combat the fragmentation that the electronic age has created. Just because your child is in the room with you, it doesn't mean that any "quality time" is being spent (if his/her face is in the computer, thumbing thru his ipod, sending a text msg or watching TV). Think about it: You're typing your comment into the computer. You're not talking to anyone you know. You're not looking anyone in the eye. You're losing the human aspect of togetherness. Without the human presence, there really is no togetherness at all.

Does anyone leave a computer interaction feeling as satisfied as he/she would, say, leaving a gathering (perhaps at the dinner table) of family or friends?

You are absolutely correct in pointing out the difference between cause and correlation. I even went back to the original report ( cited by the NY Times article and saw nothing but statistical correlation.

We do the family dinner at home most nights, but that happens to be an outgrowth of our priorities. The whole of family life is more important than a single meal.

Thanks for pointing out that one of the URLs was incorrect. I've fixed it.

Family dinner is yet another tradition being decimated by the growing demands of school sports programs that insist on holding practices and games at dinner time and on Sunday mornings.

Let me get this right. I had family dinners maybe six times a week--got fat, didn't have sex, then had it with younger women, got depressed (in no particular order of course), took drugs, had eating disorders, drank, got good grades, then bad ones ... So you're saying if I hadn't had these family dinners, think how much worse my vocabulary would be?


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