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SALT LAKE CITY -- In 1970, former Secretary of Agriculture and future President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Ezra Taft Benson, extolled the virtues of eating together as a family.
In an article for the Improvement Era, he wrote, “Mealtime provides a wonderful time to review the activities of the day and to not only feed the body, but to feed the spirit as well.”
As is often the case, science vindicates the common sense of the wisdom handed down to us from previous generations.
Scientists have been studying the effects of family dinners for years. New research is adding to the library of evidence documenting the advantages of having family dinners — and the pitfalls associated with skipping family meals.
- 5 1/2 times likelier to use tobacco
- Nearly 3 times likelier to use alcohol
- 6 1/2 times likelier to use marijuana
- More than 3 likelier to expect to try drugs in the future
Eating itself is not something we struggle with in this country. Obesity rates have soared so high the weight of our young adults has become a threat to our national security. In 2010, a group of retired military generals issued a report with the provocative title, “Too Fat to Fight,” in which they revealed many young adults who want to join the military can’t — because they weigh too much. Even the Deseret News has chimed in recently, issuing a plea to “quit eating so much.”
So what is it about eating that can be so good? According to the latest research, it’s not merely what we eat that can produce attractive benefits — but how we eat.
An article in The Journal for Nurse Practitioners explains, “Over the past four decades, the family meal has been replaced with eating alone, grazing, eating in one’s vehicle, and eating while watching television or working on the computer.”
The same article explains that quality time during family meals is critical to producing the coveted benefits.
But just what are those benefits?
An in-depth report published this year by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) illustrates teens who eat dinner with their families at least five times per week are more likely to have positive relationships with their parents and their siblings.
On the flip side, teens who don't eat dinner regularly with their families are:
• “More than five-and-a-half times likelier to use tobacco
• Almost three times likelier to use alcohol
• Six-and-a-half-times likelier to use marijuana
• And more than three times likelier to expect to try drugs… in the future”
However, as noted previously, family dinners must entail both quantity and quality. To reap the full potential benefits, parents must not only have frequent family dinners, they must also eliminate common (and harmful) distractions — including television, phone calls, texting, and video games.
Whether parents initiate family dinners because they enjoy being together, are encouraged by their religious leaders or warned by scientists, the dying tradition of the family dinner can feed the body and spirit as well in 2011 as it could in 1970.
In fact, in a day and age when adolescent substance abuse is referred to as "America's No. 1 public health problem," a strong argument can be made that family dinners are even more vital to the health and safety of our families today than they were 40 years ago.
Kurt Manwaring is pursuing a graduate degree in public administration at the University of Utah. He is a consultant with Manwaring Consulting, LLC and maintains a personal blog at www.kurtsperspective.blogspot.com.