“Research shows that family meals promote healthier eating – more fruits, vegetables and fiber; less fried food; and often fewer calories,” says registered dietitian, nutritionist and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Angela Ginn, in an article for ScienceDaily.com in February 2014. File photo
“Research shows that family meals promote healthier eating – more fruits, vegetables and fiber; less fried food; and often fewer calories,” says registered dietitian, nutritionist and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Angela Ginn, in an article for ScienceDaily.com in February 2014. File photo

By EmmaLee Italia | Contributing Editor

The kitchen table is more than just a piece of furniture – it’s a hub. This is what ours looks like:

Homework papers accompany pencils and eraser crumbs, a phone charger, notepads with grocery and to-do lists, a book I’ve been reading in five-minute spurts, scented candles, cork trivet, hand sanitizer, someone’s watch, paper napkins, a rubber bracelet from summer camp (it’s September, mind you), hair ties from out-the-door-for-school touchups, yellow legal pads and a bottle of vitamins.

But several nights a week, all of that is shoved to one side so our family can accompany four chairs and some plate space, jockey for elbow room and pass the salt.

Dinners together weren’t a question during my childhood – they just were. Whether leftovers or a freshly prepared new meal, my mother and father, brother and I occupied the same chairs each night, barring illness, said Grace and tucked in. Along about high school I had more evening commitments, and dinnertimes weren’t as consistent. But for the most part, at 6 p.m. you knew where you were expected to be.

With evolving job descriptions and schedules competing for our every minute nowadays, the idea of family mealtime can be daunting, if not nearly impossible. The physical and social benefits, however, make a credible case for trying to make regular family meals a priority.

“Research shows that family meals promote healthier eating – more fruits, vegetables and fiber; less fried food; and often fewer calories,” says registered dietitian, nutritionist and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Angela Ginn, in an article for ScienceDaily.com in February 2014. “And family meals do much more than put healthy food on the table,” she continued. “Beyond preparing the meal itself, we sometimes forget that mealtimes offer time to talk, listen and build family relationships. And it’s a chance for parents to be good role models for healthful eating.”

The side effects of that unique family time were revealed in a Washington Post article by family therapist Anne Fishel in January 2015. Boosted vocabulary, higher academic achievement, lower rates of both obesity and high risk teen behaviors were observed in families that had regular meals together – that is, if the TV remained off simultaneously.

“In one study of more than 5,000 Minnesota teens, researchers concluded that regular family dinners were associated with lower rates of depression and suicidal thoughts,” Fishel wrote. “In a very recent study, kids who had been victims of cyberbullying bounced back more readily if they had regular family dinners.”

Positive behaviors, meanwhile, were shown to increase. “In a New Zealand study, an higher frequency of family meals was strongly associated with positive moods in adolescents,” the article continued. “Other researchers have shown that teens who dine regularly with their families also have a more positive view of the future.”

For some reason it seems easier to debrief at a family table over something delicious. Barriers come down, and conversation flows more easily at mealtimes than an off-the-bus inquiry, “how was school?” I can almost see the tensions of the day subside as our meal progresses, dialogue lubricated by a touch of extra virgin olive oil.

Sunday meals held a place of honor in both my and John’s homes when we were children. Grandparents hosted or were invited, often the special dinnerware would come out, and dessert and a card game would cap the evening. Our Sunday meal with John’s parents, whether at our home or theirs, continues to be our touchstone. I hope it provides lasting memories for our children, when they begin families of their own, that they will want to continue for the next generation.

We may have to ask ourselves whether too many activities have limited our ability to gather and touch base. And can our families reassess priorities, carving out space for at least one meal together at the same table?