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The Surprising Power of Family Meals by Miriam Weinstein

The Surprising Power of Family Meals

The Surprising Power of Family Meals by Miriam Weinstein
Sep 05, 2006 | 280 Pages
  • Paperback $17.00

    Sep 05, 2006 | 280 Pages

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“There’s a lot more to family dinners than meets the eye. They have ‘the power of ritual,’ giving parents and kids the chance to connect, adding a sense of security to the daily routine. They’re an opportunity for parents to teach about family history and traditions, so that they give kids a sense of identity. Even dysfunctional families seem to work just a little bit better when they make the time to eat dinner together. The point is, family meals aren’t just about food. As Weinstein puts it, ‘Supper is about nourishment of all kinds.’ That includes physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual nourishment.” —


“Weinstein does not look through rose-colored glasses. She acknowledges that single-parent households, dual-income families, extracurricular activities and peer pressure promote skipped meals and dashboard dining. She offers strategies for bringing back this simple but highly effective communion.” The Plain Dealer


“Children who grow up with a strong sense of family are likely to become solid, healthy adults. Sitting down together for supper – or any other occasion – is essential to family, and its importance cannot be overestimated.” Washington Post


“Having regular family meals can eliminate teen eating disorders; improve children’s grades; reduce the incidence of drug abuse, teen pregnancy and smoking; and even expand toddlers’ vocabularly…. Weinstein’s case studies are stimulating, and her writing style is persuasive enough to convince readers to make a point of enjoying an evening meal with their families.” Publishers Weekly


“Thoughtful, meticulously researched…Weinstein offers small steps families can take to reinstitute this basic tradition.” Newsday


“Weinstein researched the benefits of the family supper and concluded that the practice cements relationships. The immediate goal is for your family to walk away from the table feeling pleasure…. The family dinner is bonding and opens the lines of communication.” Dallas Morning News

Author Q&A

A Talk with Miriam Weinstein1. Why write a book about family meals?In a world of ever-increasing pressure and ever-decreasing time, eating meals together regularly, as a family can be a major source of satisfaction and strength. Studies from a variety of disciplines link family meals, particularly supper, with good outcomes like helping teenagers avoid drugs, alcohol and tobacco, even teen pregnancy. These meals give children dependable access to their parents, and parents access to their kids. They connect us with our religious, ethnic and family heritage. They help prevent obesity and eating disorders They even help asthmatic children stay out of the hospital. But the best part is that sharing regular meals makes us feel good about ourselves and our families, however we define that term. Family meals are do-able by pretty much everyone. They do not require special skills or extra expense. We do not have to do them extravagantly, expertly, or “correctly.” We just have to do them. 2. You’re not an expert on nutrition, child development, or family psychology, but rather you’re a journalist and documnetary fimmaker. Describe briefly how you went about researching and writing The Surprising Power of Family Meals?Sometimes, when you’re lucky, the non-expert stance works best. You approach the subject as an “everyman,” albeit one with a strong sense of wonder and well-honed research skills. You aren’t limited by subject boundaries, but can follow an idea wherever it leads, teasing out organic connections.I had been researching various food topics when I came across a story that brought me up short. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, known as CASA, tries to keep kids from destructive behaviors (the use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco, as well as teen pregnancy.) In 1996 they ran a study to see what, if anything, differentiated the kids who engaged in these actions from those who did not. They were surprised to find that, when it came to predicting kids’ behavior, eating dinner with family was more important than church attendance, more important even than grades at school. They have run variations of this survey every year, and every year come up with similar results.From there, I wandered around the Internet, and learned about researchers at the Harvard School of Education who found that normal dinner table conversations taught preschoolers the kinds of language skills that set them up for success throughout their school careers. At that point, I realized I was really onto something. A topic that touched such disparate areas was obviously powerful.So I cast my net wide, and tried to stay open to where the subject would lead me.3. You refer to family meals as a “magic bullet”. What makes them so powerful?Throughout human history, societies have taken advantage of the natural link between our basic needs for nutrition and for sociability. The word companion, which dates back to ancient Rome, means a person who breaks bread with you. Building family meals into our daily schedule means that other activities have to fall into place around them. They are rituals that both define and express who we are.And they are manageable, within the reach of everyone. We are not talking about gourmet cooking or brilliant intellectual conversations, or the revelation of deep secrets or emotional truths, but rather a simple act of coming together. We live in a society that elevates individuality and competitiveness. Making time for each other, making our kitchen table what one woman I interviewed called “a little holy place” creates a shelter in a hectic world.4. What was one of the most surprising findings you came across?In trying to understand what gives family meals their meaning and power, one of the most important pieces of advice I received was one of the most simple: eat facing each other. If we face each other, we are more likely to converse, to interact. That linking of feeding and sociability makes a powerful bond. (One more reason to turn off the TV!)5. What was one of the most useful tips you came across for helping busy families eat together more regularly?Think about what you remember of your own childhood suppers. Now think about what your children will remember. If you keep your priorities clear, the details will fall into place.6. Given what you know about how kids learn to eat, what’s the most important bit of advice you’d give to parents of young children?Children learn by example. If you eat a variety of healthful, tasty foods in an atmosphere of low-key sociability, they will learn that food is a pleasure to be shared. Also: do your children the favor of having expectations. Just as you expect that they will one day finish school or learn to drive, expect that, in time, they will eat, and enjoy, most foods. If you become a short order cook you will be miserable, and your children will become more finicky, not less.7. What are some links between the decline in family meals and the eating disorder epidemic? First, let’s keep in mind that professionals define eating disorders to include obesity along with anorexia and bulimia.When we remove the social supports from regular family meals, we open the way toward chaotic or idiosyncratic food habits. If we don’t eat together, children don’t learn what adults eat, what constitutes a reasonable portion or a balanced meal. They lose touch with the richness of their ethnic and family heritage. With no family modeling or expectations, they are at the mercy of junk food advertising, as well as what one nutritionist calls the health terrorist message of the day.By agreeing to eat together as a family, we limit our eating to specific times, places and contexts: ie mealtimes, around a table, in company. One of the assumptions of sharing a meal is that we will be hungry at the same time. That means that, both before and after the meal, we will limit our snacking. And snack foods tend to be calorie dense and nutritionally poor. When we eat in a group, the accompanying conversation means that we are more likely to take our time with our meal. That means we will likely eat less and enjoy our food more, because it takes 20 minutes for our bodies to register satiety. We live in a culture that demonizes food, yet makes it constantly and cheaply available. We have taken some of the righteousness that, in other times, was directed at immoral behavior, and directed it towards our eating routines. One way to regularize our relationship with food is to put it in a context of loving sociability.8. We’re always being told kids don’t exercise enough, and yet after school sports is one of the things that keeps families in the mini-van and without time for family supper. How do you feel about the demands sports schedules put on families and do you believe that something should be done to change this?One thoughtful high school football coach I interviewed calls the current situation an arms race, with teams expected to continually expand their practice times. Yet this winning coach has taken a principled stand, spelling out his priorities at the beginning of the football season: “your faith, your family, your school, your football.” He feels that kids whose lives have some balance are better able to focus on football when the time comes for them to play. He limits his own children’s involvement to one sport per season.Another outstanding man I interviewed, who runs a volunteer youth league, takes lessons from his professional life as a consultant in business organization. He says that, when kids spend all their time playing sports that are organized by adults, we are managing out leadership.So yes, I think we have become overzealous in our embrace of adult-organized competitive sports, and yes, I think there is much to be done. I want to tell parents that they are not alone, that they don’t have to be pressured to sign their kids up for every activity. They can identify sympathetic parents, coaches and teachers. They can raise the issue community-wide. A good way to begin is to invite a speaker to address a school, church or community group. My book describes communities that are tackling these issues in a serious way.This will not be a quick fix. It took a generation for us to dismantle the societal supports around family meals. But we can work toward a more balanced and satisfying way to live.9. Why is this daily ritual so important? What are the benefits?It gives families a dependable time to be together. We don’t have to invent, schedule, or rationalize that togetherness. It takes advantage of basic biological and social needs, for nutrition and for sociability. It allows us to act out what it means to be a family: we nurture each other. We enjoy things together. We travel through life together.Rituals are about continuity and change. We can take advantage of their ability to move us through time, and we can change them when we need to.Although teenagers, in particular, may act like they don’t want or need their parents, in fact the opposite is true. When they are questioned separately, they say they appreciate the fact that their parents care about them enough to prepare a meal. (And both children and teenagers take pride in their cooking skills. Preparing meals for the family, sharing in meal preparation and clean up are important life skills.)10. The promotional text for your book says that regular family meals “make home a more attractive haven.” What do you mean by this, and what are some of the simple pleasures, beyond just eating tasty food, that regular meals together can provide?For a while, a buzz word in parenting was quality time, as if you could spend a minimum of time with your children and yet pump up every minute. Regular family meals are the opposite. Instead of worrying that every interaction has to be meaningful or fun, the fact of being together at regular intervals doing something necessary and enjoyable. It sets the stage for “quality” to emerge. Researchers find that our most meaningful childhood memories are not the big ticket items — the shows or the sports events — but rather the ongoing sense of caring, of sharing, of spending our time together. Another buzzword is “being there for someone.” How can we be there, if we’re not even there?Eating regular meals together lets us enact what it means to be a family: we are people who nourish each other, who listen to each other, who share something life-giving every day.Supper, in particular, marks the transition from day to night, from public to private, from work to home. 11. The promotional text for your book also says that family meals will “promote a sense of resilience that will last a lifetime.” What sorts of studies have been done to demonstrate this and how does it work?Psychologists at Emory University have shown that family meals are natural places for children to learn about their family background. Children with this kind of grounding tend to feel that their families function better, and also report that they themselves are more in control of their lives. Life is not always smooth or easy, and children gain confidence by learning about the bad as well as the good. The lead researcher of the Emory study puts it this way: “You have to look at where they (the family) are telling about it (past setbacks or tragedies.) They’re in the safety of their own home. The message is: terrible things have happened, but we’re okay, the family survives. We’re thinking, it gives the kids grounding, a sense of place, a sense of context.”And the rhythms of normal life seem to help in themselves. A George Washington University study of alcoholic families over three generations shows that families who are able to maintain rituals such as supper are less likely to transmit their alcoholism to the next generation.When I asked that study’s lead author the chicken or egg question: are families who function better, more able to “do” family meals, or are the meals themselves helpful, he said, “If we have that vehicle (supper) it’s built into our life, it’s there. If you have to call a special meeting, it’s much less likely it will happen. The analogy, in business, there are ongoing meetings. There are others scheduled for specific purposes…..Are you making this easier for yourself or harder for yourself?”12. Your book makes a convincing case that there is a strong causative relationship between family meals and literacy. That seems rather surprising. Please explain this.One of the things we do when we sit around the table is tell stories. These may be rather modest tales — you’ll never guess who I met today; I had lunch with my new friend — but in this situation, children learn to structure narratives, and they learn the lion’s share of their new vocabulary. (In a study by professors from the Harvard School of Education, over a thousand new words in preschoolers’ vocabulary had been learned at the dinner table, while only 143 came from being read to.) Building vocabulary turns out to be very important when you are learning to read. You only have to decode the word, you don’t have to figure out its meaning as well. Interestingly, the Harvard-based research group kept in touch with their subjects from the time they were preschoolers until the end of their teenage years. They found that, while learning to read is important in itself, early success in reading appears to set kids up for success throughout their school careers. At one point, they jokingly considered calling the book they wrote about their research, Everything I Learned, I Learned At The Dinner Table.

From the Hardcover edition.

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