National Public Radio had a radio broadcast yesterday morning on “The Family Dinner Deconstructed.” Here’s the blurb: “The ritual of a family dinner has been praised as an antidote to bad grades and bad habits in kids. But as researchers look closer at the family dinner, they raise the question: Is it the mere act of eating together that counts, or is it that strong families are already more likely to have a family dinner?”
The reporter does a wonderful job talking with a variety of researcher to focus in on the proximate features of the family dinner—conversations, relationships, rituals, emotions—and how they can impact physical and mental health. For example, the quality of conversations at mealtime was a better predictor of reading development than parents actually reading to their children. But what mattered was the content on dinner conservation, that it was complex and “rich with explanation, story telling, and more.” Similarly, for physical and mental development (for example, eating disorders), specific behaviors at dinner proved important: roles assigned (setting the table, beginning and end to dinner); a genuine concern about daily activities; and a sense of empathy and concern for each other.
While the radio cast pushes a double-blind study to “determine” the specific effects of a good-quality family dinner versus dinner-as-usual, the announcer rightly acknowledges that doing such research is a daunting prospect. I would add that an ethnographic approach that builds on this educational and psychological research and that teases out the relationships between dinner, family interaction, and development as a joint physical-mental phenomenon could also add some great insights.