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Harvard EdCast: The Benefit of Family Mealtime

Anne Fishel, executive director of the Family Dinner Project, helps families find fun, creative, and easy ways to make meals a reality.
A father having dinner with his daughter

Despite family mealtimes being hugely beneficial to kids, only about 30% of families manage to eat together regularly. Anne Fishel, executive director of the Family Dinner Project, knows it's not always easy to find that time but it also doesn't have to be so hard. Through her work, she helps families find fun, creative, and easy ways to make meals a reality. As many families adjust to stay-at-home orders from the Coronavirus, there is a silver lining in that now there is time to enjoy a family meal or two.

TRANSCRIPT

Jill Anderson: I am Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. With so many families staying home right now, that means there's also more opportunities for families to eat meals together. Family therapist Anne Fishel says only about 30% of families regularly eat dinner together, despite family meal time being hugely beneficial for kids. She's the executive director of the Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit that helps families find their way back to the dinner table with fun, easy conversations and meals. Before the coronavirus outbreak, I spoke to Anne, and asked her how we wound up being a country full of families that just don't eat together very often.

Anne FishelAnne Fishel: I mean the numbers certainly have gone down over the last 30 to 40 years. Although it's interesting in affluent families the numbers have gone up, and in low income families they've gone down, which I think speaks to the extra stressors of having to work extra jobs, having unpredictable schedules, not having as much access to healthy food. I think this accounts for why low income families struggle more with it.

But whether families are high income or low income, or live in the Midwest or on either coast, the obstacles to family dinner are pretty much the same all over. We hear that families are too busy, it's too much work to make dinner night after night, once they make it their kids or their partners are too picky. So what's the point? There's too much conflict at the table, families are distracted by technology, teenagers seem not to want to eat with their parents, although the research really flies in the face of that. Teenagers rank family dinner pretty high on their list of things they like to do, and 80% of teenagers say that family dinner is the time of the day they're most likely to talk to their parents.

Jill Anderson: Wow. Tell me a little bit more about what are some of the benefits of having dinner together?

Anne Fishel: Yes.

Jill Anderson: And why it's important?

Anne Fishel: Yes. I'm a family therapist, and I sort of half joke that I could be out of business if more families had regular family dinners, because so many of the things that I try to do in family therapy actually get accomplished by regular dinners. There have been more than 20 years of dozens of studies that document that family dinners are great for the body, the physical health, the brains and academic performance, and the spirit or the mental health, and in terms nutrition, cardiovascular health is better in teens, there's lower fat and sugar and salt in home cooked meals even if you don't try that hard, there's more fruit, and fiber, and vegetables, and protein in home cooked meals, and lower calories. Kids who grow up having family dinners, when they're on their own tend to eat more healthily and to have lower rates of obesity.

Then the mental health benefits are just incredible. Regular family dinners are associated with lower rates of depression, and anxiety, and substance abuse, and eating disorders, and tobacco use, and early teenage pregnancy, and higher rates of resilience and higher self esteem.

Jill Anderson: The Family Dinner Project has worked with, I think I read 1 million families on this issue.

Anne Fishel: Yes, we've had close to 2 million unique visitors on our website.

Jill Anderson: Wow.

Anne Fishel: We have tons of free online resources of recipes that take less than 30 minutes, and games to play at the table that promote conversation and conversation starters. Then we've worked with thousands of families through our community programs. We host community dinners at schools, and afterschool programs, and military bases, and homeless shelters, and firehouses, and we bring together a lot of families, and we have a great dinner together, we cook together, we eat, we play games, we have conversation, and then the kids will go off with a team member to make dessert for everybody, and one of us will meet with the parents and we'll ask them what are they doing well when it comes to making dinner happen, and what are their obstacles? Then we'll ask the parents to brainstorm their own solutions to these common problems.

Over 10 years, we've kind of collected some of those great work arounds, those real life hacks and collected them in this new book that we wrote called Eat, Laugh, Talk, The Family Dinner Playbook. It's really kind of a celebration of the incredible innovation that families demonstrate when they try to make family dinner happen. It's organized around the main obstacles. If I could just give you an example to show you how innovative families can be.

Jill Anderson: Oh sure.

Anne Fishel: There's a father in the book, a divorced father who has his three sons every weekend, and he very much would like to have dinner with them over the weekend, and they're really not that interested, so they scarf down their dinner and off they go to their screens. One night he said to himself, if you can't beat them, join them. And he said, boys, come to the kitchen, humor me, we're going to make ratatouille over pasta. They did that, and then he had them watch the movie Ratatouille while they ate the dinner, and they would discuss how their ratatouille compared to the movie version. Then sometimes he would turn off the sound, and have them guess what the actors were saying on the screen, and sometimes he would have them be critics, stop the movie and have them critique the different scenes. He used technology to engage them around the table, and that kick-started their practice of having weekend dinners with one another, and he didn't have to show a movie each time.

Jill Anderson: Right. I mean that's not even something I had even thought about, you have so many different family structures, kids moving from maybe one home to a different home-

Anne Fishel: Yes.

Jill Anderson:  - or different parents' home, and just very different situations.

Anne Fishel: Yes, you have three generational families-

Jill Anderson: Yes.

Anne Fishel: - single parents, you could have a family dinner with friends, or college kids in a dorm who regularly have dinner with one another, I think of that as a kind of family dinner.

Jill Anderson: Really runs the gamut.

Anne Fishel: Yes.

Jill Anderson: It's not what you traditionally would think of as a family.

Anne Fishel: Exactly. It doesn't even have to be dinner, some families find it so much easier to have breakfast together, or weekend brunches, or even a late night snack, where you push away from work and meet in the kitchen for cheese and crackers and hot chocolate.

Jill Anderson: Yeah.

Anne Fishel: That would count too. I mean if you think of it, there's 16 opportunities for a family to eat together in a week, seven breakfasts, seven dinners, and two weekend lunches, and any of those would count towards the benefits.

Jill Anderson: Right. If you know you're going to have a day where dinner is going to be impossible on a weekend together, maybe you can try to do a breakfast or some other time.

Anne Fishel: Sure.

Jill Anderson: I imagine doing this every day would be the dream, but is there a goal?

Anne Fishel: Yeah, I think it's really up to each individual family to find their way. The research has focused on five meals a week as being kind of the tipping point for a lot of these benefits, but I'm not sure that they've carefully calibrated it, I mean some researchers have looked to see, do you get the same benefits with two meals a week? Some of the academic benefits seem to really count on five meals or more, and the goal is to have at least one good enough meal together a week. If a family can make that happen, often more will follow.

The idea that has to be five or more can become an obstacle. It can kind of a tyranny of perfection. I think we really want to get away from that in all regards. It doesn't have to be a perfect number, it doesn't have to be perfectly cooked, doesn't have to be perfect manners, the secret sauce of dinner is really not about the food at all. The secret sauce is, is it enjoyable? Do kids feel that when they speak, somebody wants to listen to what they have to say? Is there not much criticism, or anger, or conflict at the table? These are the things that I think families really should focus on.

Jill Anderson: I want to talk more about that. It's not so much the act of eating together as much as it is about that connection, and making it quality time together, which I know myself as a parent is hard to do, especially with a young child.

Anne Fishel: There are developmental challenges when the kids are young, and then again when they're teenagers, but I think when they're young you want to set kind of realistic expectations-

Jill Anderson: Right.

Anne Fishel: - and some kids, if you can get them to sit for five or 10 minutes, I think that's something you can build on as the years go on. Sometimes if parents put a little bit more thought into how they're going to engage their kids at the table, and less focus on the foods that that can make for a more enjoyable dinner.

Jill Anderson: Oh yeah.

Anne Fishel: Maybe picking a game that you want to play that will really delight a child, and help a child talk more fully about their day than just asking them what did you do in school? Or how was your day? But instead maybe everybody goes around the table and says a rose, a thorn, and a bud. Rose is something funny or positive, a thorn is something difficult or challenging, and a bud is something you hope will happen tomorrow.

Jill Anderson: That's great.

Anne Fishel: Yeah.

Jill Anderson: I'll have to try that tonight, because I definitely am a parent guilty of saying how was your day and getting nothing because my child is so young.

Anne Fishel: Yes, there are 52 weeks of recipes and games to play at the table, and conversation starters for all different ages, and I think it can be fun as a parent just to go through, and kind of pick and choose what you think might work at your table with your family.

Jill Anderson: Can we talk about the conversation with teenagers, or when they get a little bit older, I would assume, and I'm sure a lot of parents would assume, their teenagers want nothing to do with them at the dinner table, and then it turns out that's not really true.

Anne Fishel: It's not true. No, when kids are given the choice, or when they're asked in a survey, would you rather eat with your parents than by yourself in front of a screen or with your peers? 80% choose their families. It's because teens know that it's the most reliable time of the day to have time with their parents, and adolescents still need that and want that. In a funny way adolescents have the most to gain from family dinner when you think of the reduction in high risk teen behavior that comes with regular family dinner.

I think it's kind of a question of accommodating, making some changes, engaging teenagers more in choosing the menu, or maybe cooking one meal a week, or cooking a course, or finding out a country that they're interested in and picking some menus from or some dishes from that country and making that, or asking a teenager to make a playlist of favorite songs to play during dinner and talking about that, and maybe not talking about things that you know really upset your teenage kid. Maybe not talking about that D they got on their math quiz, or how messy their room is, or the missed curfew over the weekend. Maybe waiting for those conversations until everyone's eaten, and maybe having it one-on-one instead of at the dinner table.

Jill Anderson: Wait, I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier, which was there's academic benefits to eating together-

Anne Fishel: Yes.

Jill Anderson: - and I don't know that people would necessarily equate eating together as having some sort of benefit academically.

Anne Fishel: Yes, these are very dramatic benefits, with young kids, preschoolers, the organic language that happens at the dinner table turns out to have 10 times as many rare or uncommon words sort of embedded in those conversations, as parents talk about being late because they hit a lot of traffic and they were so upset they wanted to tear their hair out, whatever, there are a lot of words that kids don't pick up in their picture books or on the playground, and kids who have a larger vocabulary learn to read earlier and more easily. This was a study done at the Harvard Ed school actually, a kind of a longitudinal literacy study done by Snow and Beals.

Then moving along the age continuum, kids who eat regular family dinners in elementary school and in high school get better grades, and the effect is stronger than even doing homework, or doing art, or sports.

Jill Anderson: Have you looked at all at the college student population? They're sort of transient, sometimes they move home for a month or two.

Anne Fishel: Yes. The dinner table is in some ways the the microcosm of what's going on in the family in general. It's the place where parents first feel maybe the emptiness of the empty nest, as they night after night sit at the same kitchen table and they have two empty seats where their children would be seated. I think there's something like that that happens when young adult kids come home, and maybe they weren't expected. Maybe the parents, the single parent, or two parents, they're sitting in different seats now that it's just the two of them, and they notice they have to rearrange their seating to accommodate a young adult, or maybe they've gotten in the habit of eating much later than they used to, or maybe the college student has become a vegetarian and wants to change the way the parents eat.

So you see some of these developmental frictions, or changes, or adaptations at the dinner table, and as a family therapist, it's kind of a fruitful place to work out some of the changes, who's going to accommodate, and how's that going to happen? Are you going to keep eating at nine o'clock the way you've been doing since your college kid has been away? Are you going to reach some understanding?

Jill Anderson: It's just renegotiating?

Anne Fishel: I think often college kids come back with some new ideas about food that they may want to introduce their families to, and I think one of the kind of earmarks of families who do the best, making the transition from teenage to young adulthood happens when parents really welcome the adventures and journeys that their kids take outside the family, and those journeys might be in exploring new cuisines, new ways of eating. It's sort of an opportunity I think, for parents to say, teach us, make something you've learned, or let us adapt to things that are important to you now that you've had a new experience in college.

Jill Anderson: I hear a little bit about parents, they want to get their kid to bed earlier, and both parents are not home at the same time, and so then I becomes this what time to eat issue.

Anne Fishel: Right. Yeah, it's like which ritual is going to get privileged? Is it going to be the bedtime ritual or the dinnertime ritual? Couple things come to mind, one is a family dinner doesn't have to be everybody.

Jill Anderson: Oh yeah.

Anne Fishel: Family dinner is one parent and a child, it could still be a family dinner, and then if there's another parent and he or she comes home late, then the child at least still had a family dinner. But maybe on the nights when the whole family can't eat together, there's more focus on breakfast.

Few years ago, Cheerios came to us and said, we know you have the Family Dinner Project, but how about the family breakfast project? We created games, and food, and conversation starters for breakfast, building it around a seven minute breakfast, because that's how long it is when you press your snooze alarm before it goes off again. We thought even busy families could fit in a seven minute breakfast, so they're conversation starters and games that sort of tilt towards anticipating the day rather than reflecting back on it.

Jill Anderson: I'm still a little bit taken aback by that statistic you mentioned earlier, that only 30% or 40%-

Anne Fishel: Have dinner.

Jill Anderson: - have dinner together, and while that's not the worst number you could ever hear.

Anne Fishel: And that's regular.

Jill Anderson: Yeah.

Anne Fishel: There more families who have it one time a week, or twice a week. It's not that the other 60% are never having family dinner.

Jill Anderson: Right, it's still surprising to hear that. What would you say if there was one thing for families to think about doing? How do you start?

Anne Fishel: I think I would start with making a commitment to having it once a week, and then I would ask a family, what would you like to work on? If you were to make one small change, where would it be? Would it be in trying a new food? Would it be having more fun at the table? Would it be finding out more what goes on in each other's days? Would it be talking about the news? Or talking about who we are as a family, and what our identity is, and what we value as a family? I would ask a family, if you were to make one small shift, small addition to family dinner, in what realm would you want to do it?

Jill Anderson: Do you find that if you approached this to big, thinking let's do this every night, it's just-

Anne Fishel: It doesn't work.

Jill Anderson: It doesn't work.

Anne Fishel: Yeah. Yeah, I think that can be overwhelming, and can make families just want to give up on it. Some families, nobody likes to cook. I remember a family like that who nobody liked to cook, but they wanted to have dinner together, and so they decided to have one dinner out a week, and I made them a conversation jar, it was a jar stuffed with whimsical, thought provoking, funny questions on little slips of paper, you can download them on our website, because they wanted to have a sustained conversation at the restaurant for 45 minutes, and so they brought the conversation jar to the restaurant. Just said, forget about cooking at home, maybe later on we'll tackle that, but for now we just want to have a good conversation with the three kids and the two parents.

Jill Anderson: That's what this is all really about.

Anne Fishel: Yeah, it really is. There's just so few opportunities each day for families to be together, and to connect, and relax, and have a good time.

Jill Anderson: And get rid of your phones.

Anne Fishel: And well, get rid of your phone, that's one option that many families take to have a technology free time of the day. Other families I know take a slightly different stance where you can bring a phone if you want to share something with the family, a photo you took, or a funny text, that's okay. Or sometimes families say, we'll just use our phones to resolve factual debates, do fish sleep? Who won the world series in 1990? That kind of thing.

Jill Anderson: I mean, it sounds like there really is no wrong way to do this-

Anne Fishel: Yeah.

Jill Anderson: - other than just not trying to do this at all.

Anne Fishel: Yes, it's a very flexible format, the family dinner. We're not trying to make this a nostalgia project, or kind of bring back a fantasy from the 1950s with a spotless kitchen and one parent, usually the mother home slow roasting a pot roast. The idea really is to try to involve as many people as possible to make the work a little bit lighter, and to focus more on what happens around the table then the food, I mean, everyone loves food too.

Jill Anderson: Anne Fishel is the executive director and co-founder of the Family Dinner Project. She is also a family therapist, clinical psychologist, and associate clinical professor of psychology at the Harvard Medical School. She is director of the family and couples therapy program at Massachusetts General Hospital. The Family Dinner Project just recently released the Eat, Laugh, Talk, the Family Dinner Playbook.

I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening, and please subscribe.

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