Food for thought

Published 4:16 pm Monday, June 12, 2006

By Staff
At a gang awareness program May 30 at Dowagiac Middle School, the Rev. Kevin Mitchell, pastor of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, pointed out that “we have family dinner five nights a week. My son doesn't have a choice.”
He didn't elaborate. He didn't need to because everyone knew what he meant. We instinctively understand the concept, even without data from the survey that found 55 percent of 12-year-olds eat with a parent every night versus 26 percent of 17-year-olds. Or, that 37 percent of teens said the TV was on during mealtime - 45 percent for families that seldom break bread together.
Kids who eat with their folks are healthier, happier and better students. That's why the dying tradition of the family meal has rebounded enough to garner national attention.
Studies show that the more often families eat together, the less likely kids are to smoke, drink, do drugs, get depressed, develop eating disorders and consider suicide and the more likely they are to delay having sex, eat their vegetables, expand vocabulary and know which fork to use.
The dynamic of the family meal obviously involves more than food. Otherwise, we could just squirt it into their mouths like Go-Gurt. Anthropologists say meals are about civilizing children and teaching them how to fit into their cultures.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University spent almost a decade gathering data before checking in last year with a report on family eating patterns. Researchers quantified something else we can grasp instinctively. Family dinner gets better with practice. The less often a family eats together, the worse the experience is likely to be, from less healthy food to more meager conversation.
All sorts of social and economic and technological trends conspired to diminish family dining over 30 years.
With both parents working and kids shuttling between sports practices or tethered to a screen at home, finding a common time for everyone to gather around a table to share the same food while replaying the day became a luxury and reinforced the subtle message that time spent slaving over a stove was wasted.
We didn't even realize we were losing something precious, but casting cooking as drudgery and making meals discretionary came with unintended consequences. Food comes easily to us today compared to our ancestors, who had to grow crops while fighting off predators. It's no wonder Native Americans prayed over food, while we, cruising through life in the fast-food lane, take for granted what we gulp down.
For all the nights when talk is cheap and the food fast because everyone has somewhere else they'd rather be, establishing this routine is an investment that eventually pays dividends, like an evening when the mood is right, the family lingers and chews over a topic in a sheltered place where you need not feel shy or ashamed that your idea will be judged stupid.
Researchers theorized that maybe youngsters who eat a lot of family meals have less unsupervised time in which to get into trouble, or that families that make it a priority also tend to devote more time to reading for pleasure and homework.
Baby boomers who tune out their instincts might be persuaded by the 2005 CASA study finding that the number of adolescents eating with their family most nights increased 23 percent since 1998.
Parents were lax, treating their offspring like food court customers ordering off a menu. Individuals improvised without any rules or routine. Leave the TV on. Everyone eats what they want. Teens take a plate to the other room so they can maximize their time on the computer. Family meals not only mean less soda and fried food and more fruit and vegetables and trying new tastes besides salt and fat, but a place to build real family values.
Legends are passed down. Discussions not only expose youngsters to bigger words and listening skills, but bigger issues of the world can be reflected through your family's unique prism. Most important, such sharing instills the ability to compromise. No one gets their ideal menu every night. You learn to eat what's served. Parents seemed overeager to cave in, since the CASA study found that most teens eating three or fewer meals a week with their families actually wished they did so more often. Parents do themselves a disservice to the point of being co-conspirators when they make the choice that shipping their offspring to every extra-curricular activity under the sun constitutes a better use of time than spending an hour around a table talking.
The excuse of “I have no time. I am so busy” is no badge of honor armed with two other nuggets researchers gleaned:
When kids help fix a meal, they are more likely to eat it.
And cooking is not only a useful skill, it builds self-esteem.