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Don't underestimate value of dining together

I love fall. Commitments for summer baseball and soccer end, and there are more evenings when all of us are home together. I have three sons, ages 8, 10 and 12. All play baseball and soccer on separate teams, so somebody has a game or a practice most nights during the summer. One thing that too often gets sacrificed is family dinners with all members present.

Our house is not unusual in this regard. A Search Institute survey on attitudes and behaviors conducted in 2003 revealed that 15 percent of eighth- and 10th-graders in Erie County say they never sit down to a family meal. Another 32 percent eat with their families just three times a week or less. That's almost half of Erie County teens. The fact is, dinners, served at a usual set time, in the actual dining room or kitchen of the home, with all family members and major food groups represented, are vanishing from the American landscape.

This phenomenon has costs. Research by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse showed some startling findings. Teens who regularly dined with their families were less likely to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, use drugs or engage in other unhealthy behaviors than their peers who seldom or never ate meals with their families.

What's so important about dining together? My guess is that it's about communication. According to the Partnership for a Drug Free America, teens who learn a lot about the risks associated with drug abuse from their parents are half as likely to use drugs as those who do not. The problem is only 32 percent of our teens report having "learned a lot about the risks of drug abuse" from their parents.

In addition to eating, mealtimes are about conversation. If we don't have the opportunity to discuss "how our days went" it shouldn't surprise us when we don't get around to "the drug talk."

I am quite thankful when fall rolls around because family dinners return. In addition to enjoying the meals my wife makes, I am grateful for the chance to get a grip on what's going on with all of the children. After the table is set, the candles are lit and grace is said, I ask for reports from everyone, including my 3-year-old daughter, until I'm up to speed. Thanks to this ritual, I know how auditions for the school play went or if someone is going on a field trip.

Since 2001, the fourth Monday of September has been designated as Family Day -- A Day to Eat Dinner With Your Children. Locally, the Erie County Council for the Prevention of Alcohol and Substance Abuse, Western New York United Against Drug and Alcohol Abuse, Every Person Influences Children, Boys and Girls Clubs of Erie County and West Side Community Services have come together to encourage families to celebrate Family Day this Monday with dinners in their homes or to join in a number of community dinners held in neighborhood centers and houses of worship throughout Erie County. Hopefully, the event will remind people of the benefits of regular family meals and encourage making the practice a priority.

Matthew G. Smith is foundation director and community awareness director of WNY United Against Drug and Alcohol Abuse.

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