The past couple of years, in the lead-up to Mother’s Day, we have written about the many benefits of family dinner, tips for family dinner and the important role of both parents in the process (with a special nod to moms).

While not surprising, mothers’ attitudes toward and beliefs about meals matter. According to a group of Texas A&M researchers who published the report Mothers and Meals, when Mom believes dinner is important, so do kids.

This year, we asked kids what they thought—and indeed they do think it’s important. Before hearing from the kids, let’s recount the benefits.

Benefits to Learning

Everyone benefits—especially the kids. Research has found that family dinner did drive student achievement (and decision making):

  • Improved vocabularies and reading skills. Catherine Snow of Harvard Graduate School of Education looked at how mealtime conversations play a critical role in language acquisition in young children. The discourse at dinner provides even more vocabulary context than when reading them. Improved vocabulary skills lead to better readers.
  • Greater academic achievement. A Reader’s Digest survey of more than 2,000 high-school seniors compared academic achievement with family characteristics. Eating meals with their family was a stronger predictor of academic success than whether they lived with one or both parents.
  • Higher grades. A series of reports on family dinner by CASA Columbia, have found striking relationships between frequency of family meals and grades. According to one of CASA’s reports, teens who have daily dinners with their family are almost 40% more likely to report receiving “mostly As and Bs” in school compared to teens who have dinner with their family two or fewer times per week.
  • Unlikely (or at least less likely) to smoke, drink or take drugs. In addition to the benefits mentioned in the relationship section regarding CASA’s findings of reduced use of marijuana and tobacco, teens who eat frequent family dinners are also less likely than to have sex at young ages and get into fights, are at lower risk for thoughts of suicide, and are more likely to do better in school. This is true regardless of a teen’s gender, family structure or family socioeconomic level.

What the Kids Have to Say

We heard from kids (and kids at heart) about what they appreciate most about family meal time—and also included their favorite meals.

Connecting with the family. The most common response was simply getting to be together.

  • Mackenzie. “I love getting to hear how everyone’s day was.” (Favorite meal: Hamburger Soup)
  • Izzy. “My favorite thing is talking about the best and worst parts of our days, what my family calls ‘donuts and skunks’ (Pasta)
  • Bri. “I love catching up. When we were little we ate together every night.” (Pasta, because my brothers like it; when they’re happy, so am I)  

Appreciating each other. This just might be my favorite category, in part because of what my mom (Karen, one of the “kids at heart” I interviewed) shared.

  • Karen. “I love looking around and seeing the faces and knowing how we are all connected. I am so thankful when we can just be together.” (Prime Rib)
  • Gunnar. “I like it because my whole family is there and I love when we are all around.” (Spaghetti)

Genuine conversation.  Many of the research benefits outlined stem from great conversations.

  • Nat. “I enjoy the laughs and genuine conversation, even if there’s not a lot of talking when the food is really good.” (Steak)
  • Regan. “I love the conversations we have.” (Potbelly Sandwich)

The tone. Kids seemed to like when everyone was calm and relaxed.

  • Nitin. “I like that time because it is warm and light-hearted .” (Indian Beans and Rice)  
  • Hootie. “I like that it can sometimes be comical.” (Tacos and Quesadillas)

The process. Some kids liked helping out in the preparation process. I don’t feel I involve our sons enough – they used to “help”  when they were younger, then lost interest. I regained hope this year, as our 18-year-old has been grilling for the family each week, which has been awesome!

  • Nitin. “It’s fun to make Indian street food together” (Panipuri)
  • Devon. “Sometimes I help prepare it” (Chicken Tikka)

The ambience. Kids may not comment on it, but they do notice the environment around them.

  • Grant. “I like when there is a great atmosphere—good music, people, good food.” (Steaks, Mashed Potatoes and Broccoli)
  • Luke. “My favorite is part is the whole thing.” (My Brother’s Steak)

Set other things aside. In a world filled with distractions, mealtime is a great time to focus on what’s important.

  • Hayden. “I would say quality time. As you get older and some family leaves [for college] you appreciate the family dinners even more.” (Chicken Tetrazzini)
  • Aravis. “I like family dinner because it’s a time for everyone in your household, after a busy, maybe stressful day, to sit down with those you love, relax, and eat good food. It really does bring you closer together. Its also a time for everyone to talk about their day, or what’s been on their mind, and get the input from the people closest to you. It’s a time when the rest of the world doesn’t really matter, and you can focus on what’s important; family, good times, and good food.” (Homemade Chicken and Noodles on Mashed Potatoes)  

Many of these thoughts can be summed up using the acronym SUCCESS. The Purdue University Center for Families shares a helpful way to remember the benefits—here is a slight adaptation:

  • Smarter children.
  • Unlikelihood (or at least less likelihood) for children to smoke, drink or take drugs.
  • Courtesy and conversation training ground.                        
  • Connections to family.
  • Eating habit training ground.
  • Shared food and conversation at meals.
  • Stronger family relationships.

We would love to hear your tips and what the kids you know appreciate about family dinner. Feel free to leave a comment below.

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