fbpx Print Friendly Logo

Want to share this page with your friends?

Podcast Episode 2: Is it the Family, or the Dinner?

Posted on: February 13th, 2024 by Bri DeRosa

We’re thrilled to announce our latest venture: The Family Dinner Project Podcast! In each of our 30-minute episodes, Content Manager Bri DeRosa and Executive Director Dr. Anne Fishel will talk through tough topics related to family meals. Pull up a chair and grab a plate — we’re serving up real talk about family dinner! You can check out Episode 1, “Home for the Holidays?” here.

In Episode 2, “Is it the Family, or the Dinner?” we dive into one of the trickiest topics in family dinner research: How to tell whether it’s really eating together that offers a variety of physical, mental, social, and academic benefits, or whether it just so happens that families who eat together already practice healthy habits. Dr. Fishel outlines the various types of research that have been done on this topic over the past two and a half decades, and covers the scientific methods that back up the results. Together, she and Bri talk through how researchers in different countries, controlling for different factors, have all come to similar conclusions over time — that eating meals together does benefit families, independent of anything else parents may do.

Dr. Fishel covers some of the main benefits of family dinners, as well as discussing multiple studies in the field of family meal research. Some of the specific research she mentions can be accessed in more detail:

  • A large cross-sectional study showing association between family dinners and reduced high-risk behaviors in teens, that controls for characteristics of the family like being organized and connected.
  • Longitudinal study looking at the quality of the family dinner atmosphere to predict physical and mental health benefits from age 6 to age 10.
  • Randomized study looking at impact of distraction on healthy food consumption and another study on impact of spending extra minutes at the table on eating more fruits and vegetables.
  • A recent study that looks at the impact of frequency and quality of family dinner on kids and adults.

The episode wraps with food (Build Your Own meals), fun (20 Questions About a Family Memory), and conversation (Tell me something about yourself you think I might not know).

Episode Transcript:

Bri DeRosa: Welcome back to the Family Dinner Project podcast. I’m Bri DeRosa, the content manager for the Family Dinner Project. And joining me is as always, Dr. Anne Fishel, family therapist and Executive Director of the Family Dinner Project. Hi, Annie. 

Anne Fishel: Hi, Bri. Great to be back. 

Bri DeRosa:Yes, welcome back. Always great to sit in the studio with you and talk about real family dinner stuff.

And today we have what I think is an incredibly important topic. It’s something we hear about a lot, and so I wanna pin you down today a little bit as our resident academic and researcher and therapist and super family dinner expert. I want you to help me sort through some of the research, and specifically what we’re here to talk about today is whether family dinners themselves are actually that great for us, or whether just being the kind of family who has family dinners is what makes the difference.

Let’s start off by just backing up, and I’m gonna ask you, Annie, would you please outline for us really quickly some of the research that’s been done over the past many decades about the benefits of family dinners and why we think this is important? 

Anne Fishel: Sure. So, the view from 30,000 feet on the research, it’s twenty-five years of scientific studies that really fall into three big buckets.

So regular family dinners are good for academic functioning of kids. Kids do better in school, they have bigger vocabularies, particularly young kids. It’s really good for mental health. It’s associated with lower rates of depression and anxiety and substance abuse and eating disorders and other things.

And it’s really got powerful nutritional and physical health benefits. So better cardiovascular health for teenagers, better nutrition, higher intake of fruits and vegetables and protein when kids eat with their families. This research is very consistent. It’s replicated in other countries. It’s replicated in the United States with families of different ethnicities, family configurations, and economic resources, and there’s a smaller group of studies that suggests that eating with others is also good for parents and for adults without kids, that when parents eat with their kids or adults eat with other adults, there’s less binging, less dieting, and more eating of fruits and vegetables, and an overall reduction of depression and anxiety. Okay. 

Bri DeRosa: So that’s a lot.

And thank you for that summary. And there, I know because you and I have been doing this work together for so long, there are, there are some other ones that we didn’t even get to about like literacy and loneliness and all kinds of things. And so, it seems like a really convincing case, and certainly I’m convinced, but we do tend to hear this skepticism from people.

So let me ask you directly, do you think, I know I’m gonna put you on the hot seat, right? But do you think that it’s the family, or the dinner, that actually makes the difference? In other words, if we are a family that does family dinner type of activities, like talking and playing games outside of a dinner context and we never eat dinner together, wouldn’t we all still get many or most or all of those benefits?

I don’t know. What do you think? 

Anne Fishel: Well, I think there are several kind of questions embedded in that question. So I think the first question is, is there something over and beyond what the family has to offer? So if a family is very organized and they’re already like each other and they’re very connected and they have fun with each other and they have family dinners.

Are there extra benefits that come from the family dinner themselves? I think the answer is yes, that there’s been research that has looked at large groups of families and has been able to, what we say, control for those factors– been able to pull out those aspects of a family that make them, you know, very positive in, in various ways.

You know, they’re coherent, they’re connected, they’re organized, they’re, they provide structure. Even with those properties on board, having family dinners does extra. So that’s one answer, I think, to that question. 

There’s also a kind of a chicken and egg issue here, and I think since family dinner is the most reliable time of the day for kids and parents to connect, that even if the relationship isn’t this, I’m sort of turning your question on its head, even if the relationship isn’t so great. Even if the family doesn’t have a lot of fun with each other and they’re not that connected, if they can have dinner together, that’s probably their best opportunity during the day to build that.

Some of those muscles of being more organized, having a chance to connect. You know, I think of it a little bit like being told if you’re depressed, you should exercise. The last thing you wanna do is get out of bed and exercise, but if you can start to do it, you do find that your depression feels a little lighter.

And I think that that happens with family dinner, that even if the relationships aren’t so fantastic, if a family can make a commitment to having dinner together it may have the consequence of strengthening those relationships and actually bringing more order and structure to a family that maybe didn’t have those properties to begin with.

Bri DeRosa: Okay. That is a, a fascinating answer. I love that you went down the, the list there and broke it down so well and talked about the fact that there have been studies that kind of tried to isolate this question. Right. Why is this, why is this so hard to pin down? Because I, I do think, right, there have been some studies, as you said, that have tried to isolate those factors.

What types of families, what types of dinners. But you pointed out control, right? Having a control in a study versus the variables is really important for scientific research. And why is that so hard in the field of family dinner research? Help me get it. 

Anne Fishel: Okay. Okay. So most, but not all of the studies that have to do with family dinner are, were called cross-sectional.

So they take a snapshot of a family at a particular time, and it’s hard to know which way the causality goes. So– 

Bri DeRosa: –because formulation does not equal causation, so we wanna try to sort that out, right? 

Anne Fishel: Right. When you have really large studies, you can parse out, you can take out some of the variables that might explain the association between family dinner and the benefits. There’s a landmark study done by Sen in 2010 where she looked at thousands of adolescents and parsed out family cohesion, family organization, and family connectedness. So they were sort of off the table. And then she looked at what benefits could be explained just by the family dinner and found that, you know, there are lower rates of high-risk behaviors of adolescents even taking out those, those qualities. 

There’s another cross-sectional study of a hundred thousand teens in over 200 cities by Fulkerson and her colleagues. And they controlled for race and ethnicity and maternal education, family structure, and family functioning. And they found an association between family meal times and lower rates of substance use, depressive symptoms, school problems, and eating disorders. 

So those are the cross-sectional. Okay, better, better than those, and less often done, are longitudinal. So that’s where you study a family, you study a group of families and then look 18 months later or five years later, and then you can be a little bit more confident about causality. So there was a big study, the project Eat, where Eisenberg and her colleagues looked at family meals of kids in grade seven and eight, and then at their substance use five years later, and kids who had regular family dinners in, when they were 12 and 13, had less substance abuse by the time they were seniors in high school.

And again, they controlled for qualities of the family. So that’s better still than cross-sectional. But the gold standard, which are really hard to do in family dinner research, are randomized studies. So this would be a little unethical to say, this group of families, I don’t want you to have family meals for a year. And this group, I want you to have family meals, and you’re not gonna know which condition you’re in. You know, it’s, it’s rather difficult to do. And even if we could do it, there’s so many different features of family dinner. 

You know, did they, the group that had family dinner, was the TV on or off? What was the atmosphere at the family dinner? Were people yelling each at each other, or was it warm and welcoming? But that said, there have been a few randomized studies in the field of family therapy research that are very specific. So there are a few that I really like. 

One was done with kids who took a cooking class. Some were assigned to the cooking class and some not, and they all ate the food, the same food, but the kids who had helped to make the food ate more fruits and vegetables than the kids who hadn’t. Which I think is kind of cool because it, you know, we always say make your kids stakeholders and they’ll be more likely to eat. And, you know, here’s a piece of research that substantiates that. 

Or there’s another randomized study where one group was put into a, a dinner where they spent more, 10 minutes more than families in another setting, and the families who spent 10 minutes more, those kids ate way more fruits and vegetables. So it sort of suggests if you can make the dinner fun and enjoyable and engaging, and it goes on a little bit longer, kids may eat more healthy foods. 

Bri DeRosa: Thank you, because you know, being, not being a researcher myself I, it’s really helpful to hear that kind of breakdown of how carefully we look at the different types of studies that are done, the different data that is coming back, and the different conclusions that are being drawn.

And, and what I love about what you’ve just said is a couple of things. One is I like that you were able to sort of point out these research studies that may not have been specifically about family dinner, but were about eating habits and environments, right? Because that’s really what we’re trying to get at with family dinner or family meals of any kind, is creating a certain type of environment that confers these benefits.

And that brings me back to, you know, you’ve said a few things throughout the course of our conversation so far that I think are so important, and I really wanna pick up on them for our listeners, which is, you know, one is the table enjoyable? You talked earlier about families who maybe don’t naturally enjoy each other’s company, right? Aren’t sort of comfortable hanging out together, don’t have a lot of fun together on a daily basis, but where they might actually get most of their benefits as a family from the time that they spend around the table. And I wanna hone in on that for a moment because I think there’s a, a key difference here that we wanna make for people.

You may not be the type of family who naturally enjoy one another’s company and are freely laughing and hanging out together, but you can still have a really pleasant and positive meal time interaction. Right? Versus being the kind of family who doesn’t enjoy one another’s company, doesn’t hang out together, and there’s a real reason for that. And when you sit down at the table, disaster strikes. Right? So can you kind of, we’re now verging into kind of a topic around quality versus quantity, how good your meals are. Good being a, a weird subjective catch-all term, but how good your meals really are together versus the fact that you’ve done them.

Right. It’s not a checklist. So can you maybe talk a little bit about that?

Anne Fishel: Most of the studies have been done focusing on frequency. And researchers love to use the number five, and sometimes the five is five dinners a week. And that is sort of, for researchers, like the tipping point. That’s where you get the most benefits. And then some, this is quite confusing, ’cause some researchers will ask families over the course of the week, how many meals of any kind do you have? So there’s sort of a mishmash of asking the question in those two different ways. 

Bri DeRosa: Dinner versus like– 

Anne Fishel: –it could be a couple of dinners, a couple of breakfasts, a couple of brunches, and maybe it adds up to five that way. But. So frequency is given a lot of love in the family therapy research space, but there’s also quite a bit of research that looks more at the quality of the family dinner, the atmosphere ,if it’s warm and welcoming, that seems to really create the most benefits. 

There’s a wonderful study by Harbic and Pagini that was done in 2018, looking at just this, and it was longitudinal, which, you know, as I was saying, is better than cross-sectional. And they looked at young kids and followed them for several years and found that the kids whose dinners were warm, where they talked to their parents. They felt their parents wanted to listen to them. There wasn’t a lot of anger at the table. These kids, five years later, had less oppositional behavior, ate less, drank less soda. I mean, it was, you know, nutritional benefits and relational benefits. Even five years later. So, and you know, there are a few other studies like this that really highlight how the quality of the family dinner is so important.

And, you know, I think if I had to pick, I would say to families, don’t pay so much attention to checking off the box and, you know, making sure you have five or more meals together per week. If you have one, great, connected, engaging, fun meal a week that people look forward to and plan for and enjoy, you know, that’s great. And maybe a child will say, this was so much fun. Let’s do this another night of the week. 

There’s a study that just came out that actually looked at this question and found that frequency seems to have certain benefits. Particularly around healthy eating and intake of food and vegetables, and the quality seems to have more relational benefits.

Bri DeRosa: Okay. So that’s a great, I’m so glad that you brought that up because that’s a question that I’ve had in my mind. I, I think there are, there are, first of all, there are different goals that we might have in mind as a family around the, the places where we put our energy, right? And I remember when, when we did our special section about youth sports and family dinners, and I talked with a, a wonderful sports psychologist about his view of family dinner and activities and so forth. One of his most important points that he made over and over again was you have to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing as a family. Why are you pursuing this crazy calendar of activities versus why are you trying to set aside time for family dinner?

And I think you’ve just kind of eloquently made that point that there are relational benefits, there are nutritional benefits, there are all kinds of different reasons why you might wanna have family meals. And they don’t necessarily, you’re not necessarily going after every single one of them all at the same time, or maybe you are.

The question that really also comes up for me around that, and you’ve sort of answered it, is: is there something here about practice makes perfect, right? Where, like, you might start off with one meal a week, and then maybe the more you actually do something, any behavior, but family dinner, in this case, family meals of any kind. Do you start to really build on that practice, that habit, that ritual, and start to confer more and more benefits, like kind of like a snowball, right? And it sounds like what you’re saying is, if you’re looking at it from a standpoint of health and nutrition, that the really regular habit is super important. If you’re looking at it from a standpoint of connection and ritual, the frequency is less important, but maybe you will grow over time in your enjoyment of that activity. Right?

Anne Fishel: Right. Yes. Yeah. There can be a virtuous cycle where the more you do it, the more you enjoy it and then you wanna do it more. And actually we found this, we– my colleague Melinda Murill and I– did a study about pandemic dinners, because this was a naturalistic opportunity to see what happens when families are kind of forced to have more family dinners. So we had this big group of parents who were having more family dinners than they had had pre-pandemic, and we found a couple of things. 

One, the quality of their dinners improved with frequency. So they were enjoying it more. They were having more conversation, they were having more positive interactions. They were also fair to say, having more negative interactions. But Fewer negative than positive. And when we asked, do you think you wanna continue having this level of family dinners even after the pandemic is over, most of them said yes.

So having, even though they didn’t, hadn’t signed up to have more family dinners, now that they were doing that, they thought they would continue. 

Bri DeRosa: So that leads me to… I’ve had, and I wanna just kind of put this out to you and see what you, one of the things I’ve always believed, and I have said to people over the years is that when it comes to the question of, okay, but why, why family meals, what particularly, aside from all of the great conversations you might have with your kids in the car, right? We all spend a lot of time carpooling. What, aside from that, aside from, you know, the times that you might sit down and have a family game night or a movie night, whatever it is. All of those good things that we do as parents to be relational to our families. What is it that’s so important about actual family meals?

And one of the things that I’ve said to my own family and to others is that I believe when you make a point of regularly setting aside that specific time of day, and you’re saying, hold on, we’re going to stop. We’re going to gather everybody. We’re going to do this thing. We’re going to do it regularly. You’re communicating some very important and powerful messages about, first of all, self-care. That, you know, sitting down and eating a proper meal is something we prioritize. It’s something good to do for yourself. Right? Secondly, we’re saying our family is important and this moment in the day is important for everybody to stop, decompress, and be together.

And we are intentionally, prioritizing making this time because where we put our attention shows you what our values are, right? It shows you what we think is really important in life. Does that ring true for you, and and are there other reasons that I’m not thinking of why the meal itself is so important?

Anne Fishel: Yeah, I think, I think you, you said that beautifully. I mean, as you were describing that, I was thinking Bri is describing a ritual. A ritual where you set a boundary and you say, this is a time and space. This is, you know, we, at six-thirty most nights around our kitchen table, we meet, and this is who we are. This is, you know. There’s intentionality, there’s identity as a family. We’re, we show up in our quirky ways. We have things we like to eat and things we don’t. We always start by, you know, telling a joke or we know we’re gonna the table’s a little too small for us and there’s gonna be some pushing of elbows during the meal. It creates stability and continuity and kind of an anchor to the day, and everybody knows there’s gonna be a chance to talk and be listened to and to feel that, you know, that somebody’s there who cares about me. And I, you know, I think that is also kind of part of what’s really important about a regular family meal practice.

I think there’s something, even though we say food is the least important part of a family meal, I think there’s something, of course you couldn’t have a family dinner without the food. I think that when there’s food, we’re less likely to be irritable and sulky. You know, it’s often pleasant to eat something that is delicious or familiar. It sometimes makes it easier to relax, having food and certainly sharing food. 

You know, there’s a study that shows that when people share food, they come to solve conflicts more easily. So there’s something about the food too that I think, is important that you don’t have, if you’re playing a board game in the living room or you’re talking to your child in the car.

I mean, of course those are all fantastic connecting moments and, you know, shouldn’t be either or just like we don’t ask kids to only eat fruits and not to eat bread, you know, we want them to have a full range and we want a full range of, of foods. And similarly, you know, lots of points of connection with kids is, is best of all.

But if you had to pick one, family dinner or you know, family breakfast because of all the reasons that, that you said that it conveys, this is important. Self-care and making time for each other. Setting aside our other tasks and responsibilities because we’re important to each other. 

Bri DeRosa: So I think we’ve just come to a place that I want to kind of end on, and, and we always end on sharing food, fun, and conversation, because that’s who we are.

And you’ve said something really interesting, Annie, that’s gonna lead me into this. You talked about sharing delicious food and how food can break down the kind of resistance and the barriers. Right. And I, in my head, I heard somebody out there going, “Not in my house! My kids are so picky!” Right? And it’s, the food is a source of tension.

So one of the things that I want to leave us on today, the food idea for today, is I wanna encourage everybody who’s listening and thinking that to think about build your own meals. Meals where you can have a lot of different component parts out on the table and everybody can make their own plate.

You can make this fun with something like the Raggedy Ann salads or the food collages that we have on our site, where you’re building kind of artwork with your ingredients. Or you can just do things like, we have build your own nachos. We have a build your own pasta bar that you can even take on the go and eat, you know, eat as a picnic or at the soccer field, right?

There are lots of different ways to make a meal that is not so challenging to your less fussy or your more fussy eaters because they get to pick what goes on their plate. And you, importantly, your role is to don’t say anything about what they’re not eating, right. Enjoy, which is the hard part. But that’s the food for today, is build your own meals, and you can find those on our website, in our food section.

So, Annie, what would you recommend for fun? 

Anne Fishel: So for fun, so now we, we haven’t had much conflict about the food, so there’s plenty of energy still for the fun. Probably my favorite connecting game for a family is 20 questions about a family memory. And this is where each person around the table thinks of a memory where everybody at the table was present for.

And then everybody asks, yes-no questions to try to guess the memory. You know, were we younger than 10? Were there any tears involved? Was there any food involved? Was it on vacation? And so on until the memory gets guessed and then somebody else takes a turn. And what I love about this is that for parents, it’s a chance to sort of punctuate maybe a memory that they, they wanna hold onto, or maybe they want their kids to remember. And when kids tell their memories, it’s a chance for parents to hear what’s top of mind. And it, it’s often a memory that parent didn’t even know, you know, hadn’t even encoded in their brain. And so it’s really kind of fun to find out what kids are thinking about.

And so, you know, if you do it from time to time, you create this little album, really, of spoken pictures, portraits of the family. So 20 questions about a family memory, and that also is on our website. 

Bri DeRosa: So great. And I love, the thing I love about that is what you just said about, you know, the kids will often pick up on things that the adults didn’t. Right? And I find that all the time where my kids are like, remember that restaurant in Montreal five years ago with that one waiter who…? And I’m like, no, I don’t remember the waiter at all, but they’re so clued in. And I’m like, you don’t remember all the sightseeing we did that day? Or they’re like, yeah, yeah, yeah. But that waiter, right. So it’s a really interesting way to get inside somebody’s head. 

And that leads me to our conversation of the day. I think if you really wanna foster connection and you really wanna kind of get at a different angle of what is happening inside your family member’s brains, one of my favorite questions for that is to just say, Hey, tell me something about yourself that you think I might not know.

It’s, it’s a really, it’s a deep question and you can have some wonderful conversations around your kid going, well, I think you might not know that I did this one time, and I didn’t tell you because it was, I was nervous, right? If you’re like, oh, okay, well that’s, let’s talk about that, right? Or your spouse says, I think you might not know that I was learning about this and I discovered this, and you go, oh, wow.

I, I had no idea that that’s how you were spending your free time in the evenings. I thought you were just scrolling the internet, but you were actually learning German on Duolingo or whatever, right? Like there’s just all kinds of things that you can really discover about each other with a question like that. So.

Anne Fishel: I love that. I mean, it also, a person could answer it in a very lighthearted way. You know, you didn’t know that I didn’t brush my teeth this morning. Right? 

Bri DeRosa: Right. Yeah, it could be. Yeah, it could be, I think you don’t know that I hate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and you’ve been packing ’em in my lunch every day.

Could be something very simple or could be something very profound. Yeah. 

Anne Fishel: Yeah. Yeah. 

Bri DeRosa: Okay, well, Annie, I know I have learned so much today about research and methodology and how to answer this very tricky question of whether it’s the family or the dinners, and I think we’ve really isolated the fact that it seems to be the dinners.

So I hope after today’s episode, everyone is gonna go forward and have more family dinners, have better family dinners, and I hope that you will seek us out at thefamilydinnerproject.org, you can also find us on social media at Threads, Instagram, Facebook, X, and we will be back very soon with another episode of the Family Dinner Project podcast.

Can’t wait for you to hear the next one. Thanks so much.