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Families Who Eat Together Stay Together

Susan Henry
April 04, 2000

Eat and Be Bonded

      Families who regularly gather 'round the table have more cohesion, more unity. For kids, that translates into the all-critical "group to belong to." Researchers have found that families who converse over dinner have greater affection for one another. Siblings sharing a table in childhood are more likely to remain close after growing up and leaving home. Further, children of families who eat together are more likely to respect adults and to get along with them. Says Salem, Oregon psychologist Howard Baker Jr., "I have to add that the presence of a dad at the table is the greatest single catalyst to realizing all those benefits."

      Eat and Be Brilliant

      Over the decades educators have tried to identify the primary factors that make children good readers. The generally accepted winning entries are good nutrition in early childhood; children being read aloud to from infancy through the primary grades; and an abundance of reading materials in the home -- youngsters observe their parents reading and emulate them. This year researchers out of Penn State University found that the single factor common to the best readers from elementary through high school is: Their families eat dinner together at home.

      The Penn State researchers compared several hundred students from eat-together families with a like number from families who seldom put their feet under the same table at the same time. They found that children whose families gather at the dinner table and converse develop more extensive vocabularies at earlier ages; are superior at conceptualizing "real subjects" (as opposed to, say a cartoon plot); are better able to articulate at an earlier age; and score two to three grade levels higher on standardized reading and language tests. Both groups (dine together and graze alone) included kids from an array of social, economic, ethnic, and parent educational-level backgrounds, and those factors had little influence on the youngsters' reading achievement. The only differentiating element was whether or not families had meals together.

      Eat Together and Keep it Together

      The most recent study relating family eating patterns to kid behavior was reported August 16 at the convention of the American Psychological Association. Psychologists Blake Sperry Boden of Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and Jennie M Zeisz, DePaul University, looked into the factors that make a teenager "well adjusted" and out of trouble. Their definition of "well adjusted": adolescents "who were less likely to do drugs, less likely to be depressed, more motivated at school, and had better peer relationships."

      The one overwhelming commonality among teens who don't get into trouble: "They ate with their families an average of five days a week compared to non-adjusted teens who (had family meals) three days a week (or fewer)."

      While Boden and Zeisz say they "haven't pinpointed ... exactly what aspect of family mealtimes ... helps prevent adjustment problems," they are quite clear that "family mealtimes ... play an important role in helping teens deal with the pressures of adolescence."

      Since family eat-togethers play such a crucial role in kids' positive development, it would be a good idea to define the concept. The Penn State team did:

      All family members are gathered together around the same table at the same time. No TV trays, no individuals eating in another room. TVs and radios are off. (The Penn Staters didn't say, but we think Yanni in the background is acceptable.) Conversation is as inherent to the meal as food is. Jimmy, pass the beans and broccoli and tell me about your new coach.

      --Susan O. Henry is a FitnessLink Contributing Editor.



This news story is not produced by the American Psychological Association and does not necessarily represent the opinions of the association.