For most of the last 5 years, I have been somewhere other than home. I worked for two startups in Atlanta, splitting my time between an apartment there and my small Alabama farm. Though my family has made the best of it, this was never an ideal arrangement.
Earlier this month I moved back to take a job at Cooking Light. And I've quickly discovered what I've missed the most: Dinner at the table with my children. Our dining room table hosts many things but dinner—school projects, bills, magazines, and dust.
But we're changing that--and there's plenty of evidence doing so will promote health. Just in the last few months a raft of studies have concluded that family dinners:
• Improves socialization in children;
• May help kids improve diet choices and become more willing to eat new foods.
These are observational studies -- so they just link outcomes with actions. There's no cause and effect here. But they do build on the conclusions of earlier studies that have linked family dinnertime with higher grade-point averages and better self-esteem in kids, with less drug abuse and teen pregnancy and better mental health outcomes in adolescence. And as the frequency of family dinners goes up, so do the health benefits, the studies say.
All of this from just eating together!
Now, imagine, as the authors of some of these studies suggest, the conversations at dinner are about the food. How much bigger could the health benefits be? That's what we're trying at our kitchen table — we've discussed the ingredients, the recipes, what we want to grow in our garden next year, and what we should have tomorrow.
Before I began working away from home, we had these discussions all the time. I took my kids grocery shopping and let them help pick out ingredients. My daughter helped me garden and cook in the kitchen. We were constantly engaged in conversations about food. This helped as they went from toddlers to kindergarteners. But I get a sense that the conversation has slowed down in my absence and the bad eating habits have picked up.
At the dinner table, we're starting to see some payoff! It's only been few weeks, but my picky eater is eating a broader palate. He's tried three different kinds of soup and was finally convinced to taste fish. He's still a work in progress, but he's progressing.
My overeater is eating slower and more mindfully. She's more likely to say, "I'm full," than "Can I have seconds?" And we're all enjoying our time together. Dinner is just as likely to devolve into family game time as it is to TV time.
Our lives are far from a Norman Rockwell painting, but we're using the dining room table to reconnect our lives and, hopefully, forge a healthier future for our family.
QUESTION: What do you discuss at your dinner table?
Sean Kelley is managing editor of Cooking Light.