Dinnertime is family time

More families are eating together, and that’s good for children, experts say

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter



Tips for easy family meals

• Keep meals simple. The meal doesn’t have to take hours to cook in order to reap benefits. Try adding fresh ingredients to a pre-made sauce.

• Cook on weekends and double the recipe. Freeze leftovers so you have an easy meal on another night.

• Take-out. Try a roasted chicken from the grocery store and add a vegetable and whole grain such as rice.

• Take time. Sit down and enjoy the meal with your family. Make it a pleasant experience, rather than a time for discipline or discussing problems, so that kids want a second helping of family dinnertime. Don’t turn on the TV during that time. Eating while watching TV can cause overeating and deprives the family of valuable conversation.

SOURCE: mealsmatter.org and Vancouver pediatrician Dr. Phillip McGuiness

Instructors at Vancouver’s Children’s Home Society of Washington often convene classes around a dinner table to teach parenting skills to clients referred by state Child Protective Services.

“It’s part and parcel of what we are trying to focus on in most of our programs: building that positive relationship between parent and child,” said regional director Bridget McLeman. “It’s one of the strategies to try to reinforce the bond and reassure the child that come what may, there are caring adults in their lives.”

The habit of family dinner, deceiving in its simplicity yet important to children’s development, may be having a comeback. Recent Census Bureau survey results released earlier this month show more parents ate meals with their children on a daily basis in 2009 compared to 10 years ago. Whether the uptick is a sign of the economic downturn or a growing awareness about the benefits of family dinner is unknown. But research has found that family dinners and the family engagement that occurs during them helps to enhance children’s grades, discipline and nutrition, and discourage drug and alcohol use among teenagers.

The economic downturn that began in 2008 may have prodded more families to cook their meals at home, which typically costs less than eating out.

Vancouver resident Eileen Cowen eats three meals a day with her children, ages 4 years to 20 months, and her husband, Eric, joins them for dinner when he returns home from his job as a computer support specialist. The stay-at-home mom cooks the majority of their meals except for one or two weekly outings to a restaurant or friend’s house.

Before the couple had children, they said they typically ate in front of the TV, but having children changed their habits.

“It makes it easier to get them to eat when there are no distractions,” Eileen Cowen said. It’s also a chance for the family to share what they did during the day, Eric Cowen said.

“Families are eating in more frequently to save money,” said Jane Lanigan, assistant professor of human development at Washington State University Vancouver. “They also may be cutting back on extracurricular activities that keep them on the go and make eating (together) challenging.”

The census survey didn’t specify whether the family ate together at home, a restaurant or another location, but survey results showed low-income parents were more likely to eat a meal with their children than those with higher incomes. For instance, about 67.8 percent of parents in poverty ate with their children, ages 12 to 17, compared to 59.2 percent of parents at or above the poverty line.

Reduced sales at restaurants in Clark County show consumers are spending less eating out. Average restaurant sales have declined every year since the economic downturn, mimicking state and national trends. In Clark County, sales fell by 2.7 percent in 2008, 3.7 percent in 2009 and 3.6 percent in 2010, according to the Washington Restaurant Association.

Vancouver resident Amy McFall Prince said when she had her two sons, ages 2 and 9 months, it was important to her to continue the tradition of family dinners, which she experienced as a child. The dinners with her husband and children give the family a chance to connect and to have healthy, homemade cuisine.

Family meals have been shown to improve child nutrition. A 2004 study by the University of Minnesota found that children who ate with their families ate more fruits and vegetables and fewer snacks than children who had meals apart from their families. During a family meal, parents have more control over what their children eat and how much, and they can use the gathering time to talk about healthy food and nutrition.

“This is particularly important in the earliest childhood years,” said Dr. Phillip McGuiness, a Vancouver pediatrician. “There is some evidence that eating patterns … and food choices are already established by 7 years of age, some people believe earlier. So that by looking at early childhood eating patterns, one would be able to predict what choices that child will make for eating as a teen. You can easily see the implications. Some researchers believe that the roots of childhood obesity start between 1 to 2 years of age with patterns of overeating.”

The benefits also extend to other kinds of behavior.

Teenagers, who have dinner with their parents less than three times per week, are about twice as likely to use tobacco and/or alcohol and one-and-a-half times more likely to use marijuana compared with teenagers who eat with their parents five to seven times per week, according to a survey released in August 2010 by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in New York City.

Children who ate dinner with their parents daily also were more likely to have better grades.

“Spending time together conversing, producing, playing, gardening, or eating tends to produce psychological and social well-being and provide safety nets where people feel like they can rely on each other during crisis and thus may get better grades, have lower use of alcohol and drugs and maybe even eat better,” said M. Jahi Chappell, assistant professor of environmental science and justice at Washington State University Vancouver. One of Chappell’s areas of expertise is food policy.

Dinnertime enhances communication between parent and child and provides opportunities for connecting that otherwise might not be there, said McLeman of the Children’s Home Society.

“I can’t think of a lot of different times in the day when we all would be sitting down at the same time at the same place,” said Prince, the Vancouver mother of two. “Even when we are all here, the boys are running all around. Dinner gives us a chance to sit there and be together.”

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://www.twitter.com/Col_Trends; http://www.facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.