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Family Dinners Are Key to Children’s Health

For busy families, gathering together for dinner can feel like an impossibility. Children could use it now more than ever. Robin Black-Burns’s teenage daughter has after-school activities that fall over dinnertime, making evening meals at home a thing of the past. The SUV has become their de facto dinner table.

Robin’s daughter, 14-year-old Athena Burns, has dinner in the car four nights a week, eating during the hourlong drive home from robotics-club meetings. Robin usually arrives at her daughter’s school 15 minutes early to eat her own dinner in the front seat while waiting for Athena. Ms. Black-Burns says, “We wonder why so many kids have anxiety. Well, gee, they have a rigorous academic schedule and after-school activities and they’re eating in the car.”

In 2021, 44% of high-school students said they felt persistently sad or hopeless in the past year, according to data from the CDC. At the same time, mounting scientific research shows that gathering for regular meals and conversation might be one way to build children’s emotional resilience.

Nationwide surveys show that the number of dinners parents and children eat together has fallen in recent decades. The primary reason: the conflicting schedules of working parents and kids.

“It’s so basic that people forget about it,” says Ellen Rome, head of Adolescent Medicine at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital. Gathering around the table, Dr. Rome says, is “a useful mechanism for creating connectedness and role-modeling behaviors that parents want children to emulate. … We have a lot of adolescents who’ve devolved to having all of their meals in their bedroom. It’s a significant step away from family connection.”

Professor Jerica Berge, in a teen-eating study, has continued to follow research participants from a 2010 survey group, then-adolescents who are now in their 20s. Those who had eaten two to three family meals a week as teens had lower rates of obesity and eating disorders, as well as better mental-health outcomes than those who had eaten fewer meals together. Those young adults now give priority to dining with their own children and partners.

Young adults who had eaten meals with their families three to five times a week as adolescents had even more-significant physical and mental-health benefits.

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