Family dinner: How much time should you spend at the table?

Published: Thursday, Sept. 19 2013 4:23 p.m. MDT

In the past few years, family dinnertime has been proven over and over again to be one of the most beneficial activities parents can do with their children. Recently, the Wall Street Journal released an article asking how long those dinners need to be.

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Family dinnertime has been proven time and again to be one of the most beneficial activities parents can do with their children. Recently, the Wall Street Journal released an article regarding family dinner and posed a question about how much time families should spend together at the table.

It has become well known in the medical world that not only do family dinners provide children with a more nutritional meal, but studies have shown that eating dinner together also promotes better relationships between parents and children.

"One of the simplest and most effective ways for parents to be engaged in their teens' lives is by having frequent family dinners," Joseph Califano Jr., chairman and president of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, told Web MD.

The medical site also listed 10 specific benefits to sitting down with your family at least a few times a week. The list included the following:

  • Everyone eats healthier meals.
  • Kids are less likely to become overweight or obese.
  • Kids are more likely to stay away from cigarettes.
  • They're less likely to drink alcohol.
  • They won't likely try marijuana.
  • They're less likely to use illicit drugs.
  • Friends won't likely abuse prescription drugs.
  • School grades will be better.
  • You and your kids will talk more.
  • You'll be more likely to hear about a serious problem.
  • Kids will feel like you're proud of them.
  • There will be less stress and tension at home.
Although the benefits are great, many families today find it hard to eat together and have questioned how long the dinner time needs to be. According to the Wall Street Journal, researchers have not been able to pinpoint a specific amount of time, but recommendations have been made.

One study of mealtime found that families who spent 16.4 minutes at the dinner table had a greater risk of being overweight than families that sat together for an average of 19.9 minutes.

"It's not that one rushed meal hurts," Barbara Fiese, professor of human development at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told the Wall Street Journal. "If you play three minutes over time, that's 12 minutes less a week of keeping track of what's happening in your kids' life, what their emotions are like and what they are eating."

Mike Singer, a stay-at-home dad with two teenage boys, agreed, telling the Wall Street Journal that, in his opinion, dinnertime has become too rushed.

"Dinner has become more like feeding time: Get ’em fed so they can get on to other things," Singer said.

Yet other parents expressed that spending 10 minutes eating dinner gives them more than enough time to talk with their children. Sarah Dey Burton is a mother of two sons ages 8 and 6 in California, and for her, dinner doesn't need to last any longer than 15 minutes.

"It works. I think you can connect to your kids in 10 minutes," Burton told the Wall Street Journal.

Overall, Jayne Fulkerson, associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing, said there is never going to be one right way to have family dinner, but it's important that each family simply tries its best.

"If you aren't having any weekly dinners and you start having two, that's a big improvement. If you are having three, and can increase, that's better," Fulkerson said.

To encourage a longer dinner time, some families have brainstormed ideas that help parents engage in conversations with their children about important topics.

One blogger shared that a map hanging on a wall near the dinner table can encourage discussions about current events.

"I had a guy come build a frame around this map so we could have it right there by where we eat … which often helps us talk about different things going on in the world over dinner (that is, when there isn't a food fight or crying going on about how the kids don't like what I made for dinner … or Lucy throwing a fit under the table)," Shawni Pothier wrote on her blog 71 Toes.

"Dave and I want so much for our kids to be aware of the world and to instill in them a love of traveling and exploring it like we have," she said.

Others shared ideas with the Wall Street Journal such as each child discussing their highs and lows of the day, while some families with little kids stay at the table longer by serving food in multiple courses.

Several organizations have started promoting and encouraging family dinnertime, such as Positive Parenting Solution's family dinner challenge and the FamilyDinnerProject.org. DeseretNews.com also offers conversation topics in the form of a daily suggested article, listed on the site as "Dinner Table Conversations." Questions related to the article are provided to prompt discussions among parents and their kids. Ultimately, each group provides ideas and encouragement for all families at the dinner table.

"What matters is that the parents are paying attention, sitting down and looking at their child and not just exchanging a text message," clinical psychologist Marlene Schwartz said.

Email: spetersen@deseretnews.com

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