By Hanley Foundation Prevention Specialist Caleb Akers

We’ve all heard that families should eat dinner together, but why?

There is a wealth of research that confirms that families who sit and eat dinner together are less likely to engage in using drugs or alcohol. These findings are immensely important. All it requires is a commitment to time and energy on a parent’s part. Do you have older children or even teenagers with whom you wish you would have shared more meals? No problem; it’s never too late to start good habits and healthy family activities.

So, what are the facts about family dinner?

Well, for one thing, many psychologists and speech therapists have concluded that when young children eat dinner with their parents, their family conversations boost their vocabulary even more than being read to aloud. This means that children aren’t only eating foods to feed their bodies, but they are getting brainfood.  Also, children who eat dinner with their parents tend to have healthier diets rich in fruits, vegetables, vitamins, etc. This practice sets children up for good health and decreases the likelihood of being obese as they mature into teenagers and even adults.

Another essential factor to note is that family dinnertime is only productive if the television stays off. Many health professionals have studied the relationship between children’s health and watching TV during dinner. They have concluded that watching TV while eating dinner does, indeed, cause adverse effects on a young person’s physical body, as well as mind. This dinnertime habit is counterproductive to a family bonding experience that results in positive changes.

When kids eat dinner with their parents, they ultimately have better relationships and less stress.

In some countries and cultures, families bond while hunting, stitching quilts, cooking, etc. In countries like the United States, family mealtimes are the perfect opportunity for families to come together and to unify as one. Dinnertime can be more than just eating in the same physical space. It can become an opportunity for connection and flourishing family dynamics.

These strong bonds and connections act like seatbelts for kids in the sense that potholes and rough roads will come in adolescence and teenage years.

These connections and bonds will guide children and protect them as they navigate the rough terrain of life. Let’s be real: Eating together at a table is not automatically where the magic of connection and bonding comes. The real power for parents lies in their ability to communicate qualitatively. Sharing a family meal while shouting, screaming, swearing, at one another will have the opposite effect intended with very negative outcomes and consequences. The same is true for families who eat together, and not a word is spoken. Stone cold silence will not initiate the positive changes being pursued.

For some, dinner is the only time during the day when a parent and child can share positive interactions through a well-cooked meal, a joke, or a story.

It’s in these moments that families begin to build momentum, which in turn creates even stronger connections. These strong connections start to penetrate every aspect of the family dynamic, even away from the table. Research has concluded that teens who eat dinner with their parents regularly are less likely to experiment with drugs, alcohol, and even sex. In return, they are more likely to be emotionally content, have better grades, engage in prosocial relationships with peers, and become healthier physically, even after leaving home. Alternatively, when teens are less likely to eat dinner with their parents, they are more at risk for experimenting with drugs and alcohol, having negative peer relationships, and steadily declining grades in school.

Whether you are just beginning with family dinners for the first time or you realize this is something you have missed and now want to implement into your family time, it is never too late. There are so many positive outcomes for children, teens, and the whole family when everyone comes together to share a meal. Why wait any longer? You can start this evening by making real changes that will help you build stronger relationships and connections to the ones you love. Always remember families that eat together stay together.