Food for thought: Family Dinner Project encourages better quality of life, choices

Last modified: 12/12/2015 5:20:58 PM
It’s not quite “The family that dines together shines together.”

But recent studies have shown that regular family dinners are linked to lower rates of teen substance abuse, pregnancy and depression, as well as higher self-esteem, more powerful vocabularies and better grade-point averages, and can lower the rate of obesity and the prevalence of eating disorders in children and adolescents.

All of that is according to the Family Dinner Project, whose co-founder, Anne Fishel, spoke recently to about 25 school, human service and other workers who deal with families in an event sponsored by the Communities that Care Coalition to encourage more Franklin County area families to break through conflicting schedules and stress barriers to build on mealtime as a valuable coming-together experience.

A Minneapolis-based study of teens from 1999 to 2010 found that while frequency of family meals remained fairly constant overall, there were decreases in subgroups including girls, middle school students, Asians, and youth from low socioeconomic backgrounds. While the number of family meals a week among most disadvantaged children decreased from 4.0 in 1999 to 3.6 over that time, the frequency increased among those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds — with the widening gap raising concerns because there’s a greater risk for poor health outcomes among low-income youth.

In Franklin County, the most recent annual survey of teens shows that 58 percent of teens report that they have dinner with their families four or more nights a week — and that among those teens, there’s a dramatic correlation with lower use of alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana, a lower risk of depression and stronger connections with parents, along with a higher consumption of fruit.

“Things have gotten busier and busier and crazier and crazier for everyone, but I think there’s a movement back toward simplifying, to basics and to family, and the family-dinner movement is one nice key piece of that,” said Kat Allen, Communities That Care Coalition director.

Fishel, who teaches psychology at Harvard Medical School and directs family and couples therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital, made clear to representatives of the dozen or so agencies that the coalition has funded with mini-grants that it’s not out to create a “back to the ’50s” nostalgic return to the formal, polite dinners of yore.

Instead, her recipes include playing with food, a box of questions at the table to start family conversations and prompt the kinds of storytelling that she believes should be part of the family ritual — along with having younger family members involved in meal planning, preparation and cleanup.

“If there’s sort of a magic ingredient to the quality of the data, it’s the quality of the relationships,” said Fishel, whose nonprofit organization has conducted four-week “food, fun and conversation” dinner programs “If people are sitting in stony silence or yelling at each other or cursing at one another it’s not going to make for lower substance abuse and all of the other fantastic benefits that we’re talking about.”

When all family members take part in preparing the meal, “It not only makes it more fun,” she said, “but it’s more likely that everyone will eat what’s prepared.”

At this week’s gathering, representatives from the Greenfield Housing Authority, Community Action Family Center, United ARC’s Positive Parenting program, Montague Catholic Social Ministries, North Quabbin Community Coalition Health and Wellness got to sample some of the techniques and ideas on website — making temporary food sculptures with hors-d’oeuvres vegetables on their plates, playing the “two truths and a lie” game as an alternative to asking, “What did you do today?”

They also shared the obstacles they see for many families in coming together over cohesion-building dinners: busy schedules, picky eaters, tension at the table and the sheer exhaustion and seeming lack of time to prepare a meal, along with the cost of food itself.

Yet Fishel , whose program has reached tens of thousands of families online, emphasizes meals that can be prepared quickly or in slow-cookers as “one-pot-wonders” (there’s even a recipe on the website that can be made from eight ingredients or less) and says there are strategies for combatting picky eating, such as to never use dessert as a reward.

Many of the organizations that work with families around the region organize family meals of different kinds already for their clients and are looking for ideas to reinforce their existing efforts to help family members connect over a meal.

Pioneer Valley Regional School District’s Parent Advisory Council, for example, was awarded a CCC grant for a series of six family reading events, with books discussed over a shared meal. The North Quabbin coalition sponsors a Munch ’n’ Move family dinner and game night, while the Greenfield Housing Authority received a grant for a combined family dinner as part of the grand opening for its community center.

“What we’d really love to see is all the different meals and dinners happening around the community, harvest suppers and everything, integrate some education about how the importance of family dinners at home,” said Allen, “and how you can step up your family dinner a little bit by turning off the television, turning off technology, by making sure everyone gets a chance to speak at the dinner table, and by encouraging everyone to participate in setup and cleanup and cooking.”

Montague Catholic Social Ministries received $1,500 from CCC to support family dinners during its Nurturing Families Program sessions. Its co-director, Susan Mareneck, said, “A lot of the parents we serve haven’t had a lot of nurturing in their own lives in the families they grew up in, or in the way they’ve been accustomed to. There wasn’t a lot of value placed around cooking together, being together, consistency. .... Those are all things that help children feel safe. Breaking bread together is a pretty long-standing way of connecting.”

Especially for families that are increasingly strained and caught up in the rush of life, especially if they’re trying to make ends meet, “having the opportunity to sort of decompress around a meal is what people value. It’s so reassuring,” as well as a way to reinforce good nutrition, she added.

Beyond that, said Fishel, dinners can be a way to introduce children to a wider world through storytelling, games, varied menus and teaching about concepts like food waste and the wide human community.

“Food connects us to everybody, connects us to the environment and food is a passport to other cultures,” she said. “It can help kids feel something to bigger than themselves.”

On the Web:

You can reach Richie Davis at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 269

Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
Fax: (413) 772-2906


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