This year, let Thanksgiving dinner be the start of having family dinners more often
By Jeffery M. Leving
Thanksgiving is not only a time to give thanks, but a time to enjoy being with family. For most American families, it’s a time to come together and reflect around the table — something that can and should be a goal for more than one day a year.
There was a time when family dinnertime was a standard in most households, but sadly we have gotten away from that. All too often, after-school activities, social schedules and other things have dictated that we often eat alone at the kitchen counter, while perusing our smartphones.
I’m well aware that this is 2022, not 1952, and the days when mom would stay home to tend to the house and have dinner ready when dad arrived home from work are long gone. Many American households experience divorce, and most mothers, divorced or still married, need to work, so those days will never return. However, many families can and should make an effort to have a regular time to eat together, without electronics being present, at least once a week. And for divorced families — there’s no reason why a divorced mother or divorced father should not strive to eat at a table with their children.
Just to be clear, the changes from the 1950s to the present have not all been bad for families. During that period, women joined the workforce in mass, and that has allowed many divorced or single mothers to raise families. It also has brought society closer and closer to having equality between the sexes. However, for many families, there has also been a cost. Some families are rarely all together around a table, and on the rare occasion that they are, they often are tuned into a television show or playing with their smartphones instead of communicating with each other.
The harm this does is nothing we haven’t known about for several years now, even before the advent of smartphones. In the late 1990s, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that eating family meals may enhance the health and well-being of adolescents. Specifically, the study found that the frequency of family meals was inversely associated with tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana use; low grade point average; depressive symptoms; and suicide and recommended a public education campaign on the benefits of family mealtime.
We also know that for young children, having family dinners helps promote language skills as you talk with them, and your partner, about the day. It also helps them develop patience and dexterity through the use of utensils. And it helps them develop social skills that include manners and taking turns.
Another study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that kids who regularly enjoyed family meals were less likely to experience symptoms of depression and less likely to get into drug use. Research also suggests that family dinners produce a strong bond between family members. We all lead our separate lives at work and school, and this time allows us to reconnect with family members.
It should be no surprise that family meals help children get better grades. The National Center On Addiction And Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) has done many studies on the importance of family meals. One showed that kids who eat with their family less than three times a week were twice as likely to report receiving Cs or worse in school. Kids who ate with family five to seven times per week did much better, reporting mostly As and Bs. Additionally, children who have infrequent family meals, defined as two or less per week, were twice as likely to smoke daily and get drunk monthly, according to CASA.
Another benefit to family meals is that most families seem to make better food choices than if they were eating alone. One study from Stanford University reported that kids who eat family dinners are less likely to eat fried food and saturated fats, while seeking out stuff like fruits and veggies.
This also was backed up by the American Society For Nutrition, which found that young children who ate at home with their families had a lower body mass index than kids who did not. That’s most likely due to the fact that home cooking is healthier than restaurant meals, which boast larger portion sizes and higher calorie counts.
While the need to work long hours is most often cited as the reason why parents (whether married or divorced) do not have time for sit-down dinners with their children, it should be noted that family dinners are often a lot cheaper than picking up food from the local fast-food restaurant.
It is five times more expensive to order take-out from a restaurant than it is to cook at home, according to one study. A sample estimate, done before the recent spike in inflation, found that a family of four could save nearly $40 a week, per person, by simply shifting meals into the house. For a family of 4, that’s $640 a month. That’s a significant amount of money saved while your child gets better grades and is less likely to smoke or drink — all things every family would likely welcome.
So, while it will no doubt take a sustained effort for many families, having family dinner-time, at least a few times a week, should be a goal — as the benefits to children are many — and for many, can be the difference between succeeding in life or falling through the cracks. Let this Thanksgiving be the first of many going forward.
Jeffery M. Leving is founder and president of the Law Offices of Jeffery M. Leving Ltd., and is an advocate for the rights of fathers. He is the author of “Fathers’Rights,” “Divorce Wars” and “How to be a Good Divorced Dad.” Leving can be found on Twitter and Instagram @Dadsrights