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Why TV and Dinner Should Be Forever Separate

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Parents are always searching for "cures" for our kids, aren’t we? A cure for bad grades, bad friends, or perhaps even more serious issues like involvement in drugs.

“Check your schedules often and make family meals a priority.”

What if I told you there was a cure -- a simple, easy and cheap way of dramatically reducing the chances of your kids ending up in serious trouble with the law and maybe even winding up on their school honor roll instead?

The solution? Eating dinner together. Granted, you can't do this just once and have everything get better, but solid research headed up by Columbia University for 11 years is showing families who eat dinner together, at least five days per week, enjoy many benefits.

For example, teens who share mealtimes with parents on a frequent basis are...

• One-third less likely to drink alcohol.

• Half as likely to smoke cigarettes and marijuana

• Forty percent likelier to say, "Future drug use will never happen."

Although not quite as dramatic, a statistically significant higher number of studied teens who frequently eat dinner with their parents have either all A's or A's and B's in school as opposed to those who do not regularly eat with their parents.

Turned the other way around, kids in families who have fewer than three meals together per week are...

• Twice as likely to say they smoke at least one cigarette per day.

• More than twice as likely to say they get drunk at least once per month.

Likewise, parents of children who have fewer than three dinners together per week are...

• Five times more likely to say they have a "fair" or "poor" relationship with their teen.

• One and a half times more likely to not know their teen's friends or only know them "not very well."

• Twice as likely to say they deserve "not very much blame" or "no blame" at all when their teens use illegal drugs.

For many Californians, this is not news, with Governor Schwarzenegger's wife Maria Shriver declaring September 25 Family Day as "A Day to Eat Dinner With Your Children." For the rest of the country, there is a valuable lesson to learn from California's good example and Columbia University's research.

However, as easy as it sounds to simply enjoy a dinner together, researchers have also discovered the main reasons why it's not happening in so many homes -- and interestingly the top reasons given by teens and parents contradict each other.

Teens say they aren't eating with parents because one or both parents work late. Parents place that reason as number three on their list, and instead say it is due to conflicting schedules with their teens that prevent them from sharing dinners together. (Teens listed "conflicting schedules" as the number three reason.) Both groups agreed on the second reason -- simply being "too busy."

Further down the list, but still coming in at sixth place on the teens' reasons for separate eating is "watching TV." The distracting nature of television has long been a concern for sociologists who research family communications, and once again it is proven to be a contributing factor in preventing families from sharing time together. (I also recently reported on another study that indicates how TV can alter dietary behavior in children.)

While Columbia University appears to be the leader in this research area, other studies have noted similar benefits to having families eat dinner together. A few of these include:

• The more you eat meals together, the more likely adolescents are eating fruits, vegetables, grains and calcium-rich foods and the less likely they are consuming soft drinks. (Neumark-Sztainer)

• A similar correlation was noted at Brigham Young University, which also discovered college students were more likely to prepare healthy meals if they were exposed to meal preparation in their homes.

• An Iowa State University study revealed that significant bonding takes place at a dinner table and "when families eat dinner together, parents can teach children table manners, social skills, family values, a sense of community and cooking skills." A study in Spain confirms the reverse: Children from families that don't eat together frequently shared less activities, practiced less family rituals, and showed a lower level of satisfaction with family functions.

Fortunately, there is good news. Columbia University's research indicates slightly more families are eating together now than in years past. In 1998, only 47 percent of teens reported having frequent family meals (five dinners per week or more) versus 58 percent today.

If you want to improve your frequency of eating dinner together, or want to make meals even more effective, here are some further tips published by Ohio State University:

• Set a pattern of family dinners when the children are young so it becomes a habit.

• Check your schedules often and make family meals a priority. These meals may be breakfast, lunch or dinner; eaten at home or in a restaurant. The key is to spend the time together.

• Turn off the television, radio, cell phones and other distractions and allow time for tuning into each other.

• Allow every member of the family to contribute to the conversation and keep the conversations polite. The dinner table is not the place for conflict or discipline.

• Listen to other family members' thoughts and views. Get to know what they think and feel about a variety of topics, not just what happened to them during the day. An occasional conversation starter may be needed.

• Get every family member involved in family meals whether it's planning the menus, shopping for groceries, setting the table, chopping the vegetables, or doing the dishes.

• Remember, parents serve as role models for healthy eating.

In our family, we occasionally have had to move our dinner mealtime to accommodate school schedules and working times for our 18-year-old son. The inconvenience has been more than made up by the benefits we have enjoyed. Although none of the Gustafson's has a problem talking and stating their opinion (we compare our conversations with merging onto a busy LA freeway), I've often wondered if that would have been the case had we not made eating a meal together each day a priority.

Bon appétit!

For more information on this subject:

The Importance of Family Dinners III from Columbia University

What the Research Tells Us About Family Meals

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About the Reviewer: Rod Gustafson

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