By Grace R. Freedman, PhD, RD, LD, CCE
Even if you were to restrict your view to all the food-related problems in the world, there are so many to choose from: Hunger, obesity, pesticides in food, E. coli contamination, unsafe and environmentally unsound food production practices, to name just a few. So why, of all things, would you focus on family dinner?
Eating Together at Home Offers Many Advantages
In Terms of Health, Economics and the Environment
I focus on family dinner because it is a solution. It is actually one of the only solutions ever been shown to have a consistent and positive effect on multiple health- and social issues, such as obesity, underage alcohol- and drug abuse, social disconnectedness, low school performance and unhealthy relationships to food.
Research shows that families that eat dinner together do, in fact, eat better. They tend to eat more fruits and vegetables, and all members of the family are less likely to be obese. The direction of causality is unclear, but I think that once you make the commitment to eating dinner together as a family, you naturally start cooking more and making healthier choices.
There seems to be something about the ritual and routine of family dinner that supports this. Plus, family dinner is not a bad-tasting medicine. Once you get into the groove, it’s actually fun and rewarding for adults and children alike to have regular meals together. A public health intervention that involves family connectedness, laughter and the potential of healthy delicious food? Where do I sign up?
Another reason to promote family dinner is because buying, cooking and serving food directly to your family connects to many broader economic, social and health issues. The promotion of family meals can indirectly increase awareness about important food and health issues. Once people sit down around the table and care about what they are eating, you have a far greater pool of folks for whom “good food” matters. Step by step, people become more aware of issues connected with food and the environment. Perhaps, they will be ready to advocate for better safeguards and subsidies and to vote with their wallets for better quality food for their families. Family dinner can be an important first step.
So can family dinner be a movement? Can more people see family dinner as a cause? There are public health and environmental policy advocates tirelessly trying to bring attention to our threatened food system from government regulators, big food, agri-business and the press. Then there are nutritionists, school food reformers and community gardeners who have their own take on a common theme: Good food can solve problems. Family dinner can be both a tool for change and an umbrella under which like-minded reformers can find common ground. A call for family dinner can seem simplistic to some – but sometimes, simple solutions work.
Grace R. Freedman, PhD, RD, LD, CCE is a researcher in public health and policy, including childhood obesity prevention and alcohol and drug abuse by teenagers. She has written extensively on issues of family health and socio-economic causes of malnutrition. For more information, please visit http://www. eatdinner.org.
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