When we asked you (via our Facebook page) to tell us about the
weekday challenges your families face, given the competing demands of
work, commutes, schoolwork and activities, you didn't hold back.
Especially on the subject of squeezing in a family dinner.
"This topic hit my central core," wrote Moschel Kadokura.
"It's amazingly hard," says mom Samantha Kolber of Plainfield, Vt.
"Lots of balls in the air," says Katherine Hennessy of Boston. "Witching
hours" is how working mom Czarina Kulick of Pittsburgh, Pa., described
the daily hurdles and tag-team efforts to feed, bathe and complete
homework. "It often feels like no one wins."
"My family dinners, while they are surely Norman Rockwell in my head, in real life, it's more like the TV show The Simpsons," says Jessica Leichsenring
of Wisconsin, mom of three kids. She referenced one episode where Homer
Simpson cajoles the family off the couch. "We're not going to shovel
food in our mouths while we stare at the TV," Homer says. "We're going
to eat at the dining room table like a normal family."
If you listen to my story on All Things Considered,
you'll get a shockingly honest and real snapshot of Leichsenring's
family dinner: It's quick (eight minutes) and full of distractions
(think iPods, TV and kids complaining they don't like milk). And
Leichsenring is not alone.
Our NPR poll,
conducted with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard
School of Public Health, finds about a quarter of children surveyed live
in homes where — on a given night — the TV is on, or someone is using
an electronic device. (The poll was based on a nationally representative
sample of U.S. households with children. About 1,000 caregivers are
The poll also found that, despite families ranking a
family meal as a high priority, about half of children live in a home
where, on a given night, families don't sit down together to eat or
share the same food.
Lots of families we heard from told us that family dinners are special times: They just don't happen every night. For many, it's a weekend dinner where everyone
looks forward to being together. But for a choice few, it seems, family
dinner is the glue that holds the family together. (We profile one such
family, the Brown-Spencers, in our photo gallery above.)
Brown stops by the grocery story after work to pick up ingredients for a fruit salad that he plans to make for dinner.
So why are we asking about family dinners? Several studies have suggested that regular family meals contribute to healthy eating habits. For instance, one study found
that middle-school kids who routinely ate with their families tended to
be healthier eaters when they reached high school. And there also seems
to be emotional benefits as well.
"We think family dinners
matter because they provide an opportunity for families to sit down
together, to relax, to communicate, to share happenings about their day"
says Kelly Musick, an associate professor at Cornell University whose research focuses on modern family dynamics.
in an era when so many families are stretched thin, it's possible that a
nightly dinner may not be the prime opportunity for communicating or
relaxing together. If a meal is slap-dash and stressful, is it really
making a family stronger? Musick says it's not clear.
"Our research shows that the benefits of family dinners are not as strong or as lasting as previous studies suggest," says Musick.
may be that quality time spent together — away from the table — is just
as beneficial as eating together. For Jessica Leichsenring's family,
this means playing outside together after school, or reading together at
Leichsenring says she's come to terms with her eight-minute dinners, and she feels she's got strong relationships with her children.
long as I'm present in their lives and involved with them and showing
them what it is to be a good person, I don't think having dinner
together is going to sway that one way or another," she says.
So does family dinner matter? Tell us what you think.
story is part of the series On the Run: How Families Struggle to Eat
Well and Exercise. The series is based on a poll from NPR, the Robert
Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. If you
want to dive deeper, here's a summary of the poll findings, plus the topline data and charts.