Intuitively, we know it. But the realities of hectic, modern family life have driven far too many parents and children away from the dinner table. Between shuttling kids to play dates and preschool, singing and soccer practice, it is all that harried working parents can do to cruise by a fast-food drive-through window, get the kids to bed, do a load of laundry and call it a night.
In addition, distractions have multiplied. Donna Reed and the Cleaver parents of the 1950s and ’60s never had to compete with cell phones, text messaging, iPods and laptops. Neither did families let the television be the focal point of meals. Instead of talking to each other, far too many of us eat while passively letting the tube talk at us.
That’s why Dakota Public Health recently announced its own Eat.Talk.Connect program to encourage moms, dads and kids back to the meal table. Families can register for the effort on the county’s website beginning September 15. Sign up, and you’ll receive a kit with conversation-starter tips and a form to keep track of family meals. Prizes will be awarded. The program starts on Sept. 22, National Family Day.
Dakota is taking a lesson from nearby Carver County, where a similar program was launched in 2005. More than 1,200 families participated, and follow- up surveys showed that many became more connected and continued to make family meals a priority.
It’s good for kids and parents, but it is also good for government and family bottom lines. As a major provider of social services, counties are wise to get involved because family connections can help reduce the need for some social, law enforcement and counseling services. Research shows that children who eat regularly with their families have fewer mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, engage in less risky behaviors such as drugs, alcohol and early sexual activity, get better grades and have better diets and less likelihood to develop obesity, anorexia or bulimia.
Recent University of Minnesota research found that meals with Mom and Dad tend to benefit girls more than boys when it comes to drug use. But other constructive effects of family mealtime help both genders.
That’s good for government and for taxpayers. Addressing social concerns can reduce caseloads for counties and juvenile courts, and improve health and school performance.
Whether at a restaurant, over fast food at the kitchen island or in the dining room with a home cooked dinner, carving out exclusive family time yields big benefits. So it’s smart for counties to encourage it. And it’s why families should do it on their own — with or without a push from local government.