It’s been said that children become civilized at the dinner table.
Mary Chung would just like to get her daughter to sit down.
“She wants to dance, even while she eats,” said Chung of 7-year-old Elena. “We’re working on it.”
Family dinner is a priority for Chung, a nonprofit development director, and her husband, Octavio Chung Bustamante, a construction foreman.
With their busy schedule, however, the nightly meal at their White Bear Lake home can get cut short, before the family heads to soccer, dance or church activities with Elena and Jose, who is 9.
“Eating together is a goal. It’s the way my husband and I were raised, and we value that time,” said Chung. “We like it when we catch up, go through the highs and lows of the day and laugh together, but some nights we hurry out the door.”
The value of family mealtime has been well documented by decades of academic research. Regardless of race, class or income, children from families that routinely sit down to a meal together suffer less depression, obesity and substance abuse. They also stay healthier and do better in school.
So, is a busy family like the Chungs doing enough to reap the near-magical benefits of family meals?
The answer, according to a researcher from the University of Minnesota, is a resounding yes.
Jerica Berge, a professor in the U’s Family Medicine and Community Health Department, has been immersed in research about family meals for years.
“Most research has shown, the more the better,” she said of the time families spend together around the table.
But Berge, a researcher, behavioral medicine provider and suburban mother of two, undertook her own research.
“One of my studies set out to find the sweet spot,” she said. “How much is good enough to get the positive effects?”
She discovered something surprising: “Less can work, too.”
Analyzing data from her 2015 study, “The Protective Role of Family Meals for Youth Obesity,” published in the Journal of Pediatrics, and a dozen previous studies that she led or collaborated on, Berge discovered that there’s a minimum requirement to get the vaunted benefits of family meals.
“I say, two or three family meals a week,” she said. “That can create a routine, and the consistency of those connections is positive, especially for mental health outcomes.”
Now, Berge is on a mission to encourage parents to carve out a minimum of 20 minutes to eat together when possible, and to feel no guilt on the nights when it isn’t possible.
“Many parents think family meals present an unreachable goal and throw up their hands,” she said. “I think this level is doable for the average family.”
For one of her studies, Berge eavesdropped on scores of dinnertimes. She set up iPads equipped with unobtrusive cameras in 150 Twin Cities kitchens and dining rooms, observing mealtime routines, the environment and family interactions.
She learned that parents felt quite a bit of anxiety about family meals, whether they managed to have them or not.
“We tracked parents and saw that high emotional stress is a huge predictor of forgoing the meal. They think, ‘I’m not up to the mess, the cleanup, forget it,’ ” she said. “Then they’re stressed because they didn’t do it.”
She also discovered that adults who grew up having family meals are more likely to establish the tradition with their own offspring. (In the academic world, that’s known as intergenerational transmission.)
But if your family didn’t gather round the dinner table, fear not.
“We tell people they can start the tradition and the benefits will accrue almost immediately,” Berge said. “It’s the cumulative effect, over time, that creates the protective benefits.”
Not just for dinner
Divorced mom Jennifer Breitinger shares half-time custody of her daughter Eva, 18, a high school senior. This year she is also mothering Arianna, 17, an exchange student from Italy.
Like many mothers, Breitinger sees the value in family meals.
“I consider putting a meal on the table to be my obligation, and I know the girls appreciate it. It’s when we have the conversations about what is really going on,” she said.
But managing to pull it off is easier said than done.
“It doesn’t always come together, but I’m trying. I would like my gravestone to read, ‘She tried.’ ”
With homework, social and extracurricular activities for the teenagers and an erratic work schedule for Breitinger, a governmental affairs attorney, weekends are often when the trio finds time to dine.
“I take pictures of the chocolate chip pancakes and bacon and blackberry-and-banana skewers that I make, not to post on social media but to text to the girls to lure them out of bed on Saturday morning,” Breitinger said.
Berge’s research supports Breitinger’s efforts.
Breakfast or lunch and meals served on weekends are just as valuable as weeknight dinners in creating the protective benefits of a family meal, Berge found.
She also notes that not every family member needs to be present and accounted for in order for the rest of the group to get the boost from the meal.
And she adds that a family meal doesn’t have to be made from scratch to count. She urges parents to bring in a rotisserie chicken or heat up a pizza and then toss a salad, or rustle up an entree that comes out of a package or from a meal delivery service.
What counts, she emphasizes, is sitting down and eating together.
For parents who read this and resolve to do a better job with regular meals, Berge advises subtlety. You don’t need to make an announcement about what you’re up to.
“You don’t need an agenda, you don’t have to say, ‘Let’s all sit down together and eat now,’ ” she said. “You can keep it informal.”
Creating rituals that will be positive for their children is a powerful motivator for moms and dads, but Berge notes that there’s something in it for them, too.
“Our study saw that parents who participate in family meals are less likely to be depressed and they also experience better body satisfaction,” she said. “That’s a good message; parents who do something because it’s good for their kids will benefit from it, too.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.