“Family traditions counter alienation and confusion. They help us define who we are; they provide something steady, reliable and safe in a confusing world.”   -Susan Leiberman

Even back just one generation, sitting down for dinner each night as a family was pretty much a given. It is a telling sign of the times to find out how quickly this ritual is being swallowed up by the demands of our current culture. Many American families, if statistics are to believed, do sit down and eat together.

According to the Journal of American Medicine, 43 percent of American families eat together every day. If you are one of those families, congratulate yourself. You may not realize just how important regular family meals are to the health and well-being of your kids. If you have not made this part of your family life, perhaps the following findings will inspire you…

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University is a national organization founded in 1992 by Former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph A. Califano, Jr. The mission of this multidisciplinary group is to research and develop proven, effective ways to prevent and treat substance abuse and addiction including alcohol and nicotine as well as performance-enhancing and prescription drugs. They have undertaken a series of studies about the relationship of family dinners to teen substance use and abuse.

Their latest finding compared teens who have frequent family dinners (defined as five to seven per week) with those who have infrequent family dinners (specifically, fewer than three per week). Teens who have dinner less than three times per week are at far greater risk of substance abuse of all kinds–these kids are almost four times likelier to use tobacco; more than twice as likely to use alcohol; two-and-a-half times likelier to use marijuana; and almost four times likelier to say they expect to try drugs in the future. This study and others like it show that family meals help immunize kids from the temptations and stresses of their world.

In addition to helping prevent future problems in kids, other research findings have documented the positive impact of having family dinners. Not only do kids get better nutrition, sharing meals as a family has been found to give kids a boost in the classroom, improve language skills in preschoolers, increase communication, and overall promote better adjustment of kids. This is a powerful tool indeed.

Some of you may remember in the early 90’s, Oprah conducted a “Family Dinner Experiment” challenging five families to eat dinner together every night for a month. Initially it was difficult to get the kids on board but by the end, most wanted to continue.  The big surprise to many of the parents was just how much the children loved it, including the ones who complained the most bitterly at the beginning.

Given the explosion of eating disorders in younger children, new research by Jess Haines and colleagues at Harvard Medical School has been examining whether or not having dinner together with your kids aged 9 to 14 might help prevent eating disorders. In a longitudinal study of over 13,000 preadolescents and adolescents, they found that young girls who ate dinner with members of their family most days or every day of the week were less likely to initiate purging behaviors, binge eating, and frequent dieting in the following year.

One more piece of advice for parents: In the not so distant past, the family sat down at a table with no distractions. Now, all forms of electronic devices have invaded the dinner hour, making conversation a far more difficult undertaking than it already is. Is your TV always on during dinner? Do family members continue to text, e-mail or talk on the phone?

Perhaps it’s time to try having dinner the old-fashioned way– by candlelight.

Family serving dinner photo available from Shutterstock.