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Child Caring

A surprising anti-drug: dining as a family

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Staff / September 22, 2005

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When Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a nutritionist and professor at the University of Minnesota, recently had her kitchen redone, the designer kept asking, ''Don't you want an island? Don't you want a peninsula? Stools?"

No, no, and no again. ''I want my family around a table," she insisted.

A kitchen table may feel decidedly old-fashioned these days, but eating meals together turns out to be one of the best things we can do for our children. A table -- round if you can manage it, and chairs not stools -- is one way to make mealtime conducive to low-key, enjoyable conversation that helps children feel good about themselves and their family. With any luck, it will draw them to the table for years to come.

''It's a simple ritual, but it has so many benefits," says Miriam Weinstein of Manchester. She is author of ''The Surprising Power of Family Meals: How Eating Together Makes Us Smarter, Stronger, Healthier and Happier" (Steer Forth Press).

When families eat five or more meals together a week, 12- to 17-year-olds are less likely to drink, smoke, or use drugs and more likely to have good grades and a sense of well-being, according to a report released last week by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA). Conversely, teens whose families eat fewer than three meals a week together are more likely to engage in substance abuse and have low grades and low self-esteem, according to the study. CASA is sponsor of national Family Day Monday, to encourage families to eat together (www.CASAFamilyDay.org).

''Family mealtime is a protective factor," says project manager Elizabeth Planet. The results are based on interviews with 1,000 teens and 800 parents.

Between working parents' schedules and children's activities, just getting people to the table can be a struggle that gets harder as children get older. By teen years, parents not only tend to be worn down by schedules, but also make less of an effort because they think teens don't care.

''They do," says Neumark-Sztainer. That was one of the findings of her study of 4,746 Minnesota teens' eating habits, which mirrored CASA's results but also showed that teens who eat more meals with their families have healthier diets and are less likely to engage in binge eating. She is author of ''I'm, like, SO fat: Helping your teen make healthy choices about eating and exercise in a weight-obsessed world" (Guilford Press).

Those results changed her own family's habits. ''It got me thinking that maybe it was more important to have dinner together than to add another activity to the schedule. It made me think, 'It's not OK for a child not to show up for the meal if she's at home.' " When her study made international headlines, a TV crew came to interview the family. To her astonishment, 17-year-old Tal said, ''I like that my parents expect me to be home for Friday night dinner. It makes me feel important."

While the nature of interactions is at the heart of what makes a meal a time of connection -- Is the TV on or off? Is mom standing at the stove or sitting down? Are siblings bickering or being respectful? -- space can help set the stage.

''In most modern kitchens, the table has been usurped by an island or a counter. We've inadvertently brought fast-food settings into the home: functional, but not nourishing," says Linda Varone. ''The idea is to create a space that supports what you want to happen there -- in this case, drawing people together physically and emotionally." A specialist in spatial psychology and feng shui, she is president of Nurturing Spaces in Arlington, which offers consultations on interior design.

At a counter, people sit side by side but don't look into each other's eyes. At an island, you're perched on stools and not comfortable enough to linger for conversation. Also not helpful: having the TV on. ''It's a barrier to conversation," says Planet. ''The message children get is, 'My attention is not on you. The TV is more important.' "

Even lighting affects conversation, says Varone. ''The idea is to create a pool of light on the table that people are literally drawn to, almost like a campfire." Pendant or chandelier lighting does that, she says; fluorescent, recessed, or spot lights don't.

None of this will matter, though, if the mood at the table is stressed, unpleasant, or unsafe. If sibs beat up on each other physically or verbally, or if parents lecture, grill, discipline, or impose unrealistic rules, young children will act out more and older ones will find ways not to be there. After her study, Neumark-Sztainer made a point not to raise areas of conflict at the table. ''If something came up, an issue one child was having, I'd say, 'Let's talk about this after dinner.' "

Certainly it's appropriate to dismiss a child for obnoxious behavior (and preferably to allow him back), but what's obnoxious to one family may not be to another. When Weinstein's children were school age, every time she said, ''Put your napkin on your lap," her son would put his on his head, and he and his sister dissolved in laughter.

''I'm sure I rolled my eyes but we didn't send him from the table," she recalls. ''I felt we were making progress if the napkin didn't stay on the head the whole meal." On the other hand, she fiercely imposed the ''no thank you" rule: ''They didn't have to eat something they didn't like, they could just say, 'No thank you.' But they had to tolerate a dollop of it on their plate."

Rituals can provide structure to the meal, especially for young children. That the table is set rather than having people grab utensils off the counter makes a statement. So do serving plates instead of serving yourself at the stove. Holding hands at the start of the meal sets the time apart, whether it's for a moment of silence, deep breathing, thanksgiving, or prayer. Some families have a turn-taking routine for choosing what gets talked about: one night it might be politics, the next, favorite jokes.

The key to success with young children is keeping expectations low. Eating together with a 2-year-old is a brief affair, but by 4 a child can sit longer, share information, and listen to someone else. ''The younger children are when you start this, the more it becomes part of what you do as a family. Over time, it becomes a haven within the family," says Weinstein. ''The meal itself becomes symbolic of what a family does for its members: You nourish each other."

If mealtimes aren't happening now or have been a struggle, make changes gradually, advises Weinstein. With children school-age or older, have a family conversation: ''We've gotten away from this. I'd like to make it a priority. What can we do to get back to it?" Don't aim too high: If it's not happening at all, aim for once a week; if it happens once a week, try for two.

It doesn't even have to be dinner. A mother of four, Neumark-Sztainer is sympathetic to working mothers who may read this and feel guilty they aren't able to make dinner time family time. ''There are 21 meals a week," she says. ''What about breakfast? What about weekend brunches?" Dinner also doesn't have to be a three-course affair. Weinstein says, ''Sandwiches work, so does pizza or take-out. The point is that everyone comes to the table at the same time."

For those who still doubt the power of family mealtime, Neumark-Sztainer offers one more personal example. ''My oldest, 22, lives across town now," she says. ''He makes a point to be home for Friday night dinner."

That he likes her cooking doesn't hurt, either, of course.

Contact Barbara Meltz at meltz@globe.com.