Opinion: Building ties across the dinner table

Family meals can let us transcend politics and other divides.
Sitting down for a meal together lowered their family’s stress level, according to 91% of parents who responded to a nationwide survey by the American Heart Association. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Sitting down for a meal together lowered their family’s stress level, according to 91% of parents who responded to a nationwide survey by the American Heart Association. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Years ago I asked members of my freshman seminar on “Cooperation and Conflict” why some students actively participated in class discussions and others tended to stay silent. One student’s answer – family meals – surprised me but drew classwide agreement.

For these students, eating with family members often provided opportunities and encouragement to share and to listen to others, helping students gain confidence in developing and expressing their thoughts.

To be sure, family meals can be painful and oppressive. But support for families eating – and even preparing food – together, especially when parents share and listen, is consistent with research. Studies by Emory researchers found a correlation between regular family meals and kids’ self-esteem, healthy peer interactions and higher resilience in the face of adversity. And over a decade of research from Columbia University found that the more kids eat dinner with their families, the less likely they are to drink, smoke or use drugs.

Rick Doner

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

Despite the positive impact of family meals, there is little attention to family meals by our political, faith and community leaders. This is unfortunate not only because of the potential public health benefits, especially for our kids’ health, but also because family meals can be a mechanism for depolarization.

Family meals can help overcome partisan differences in several ways.

First, they preserve parental autonomy, creating a private space insulated from public intrusion, whether by local school boards, state legislators, or national agencies. In this way, they create space for whatever activities family members, regardless of party labels, prefer – whether it be prayer, meditation, silent appreciation, or another family practice.

Second, family meals create opportunities for discussion of contentious issues, such as why parents do (or do not) want their kids reading certain books.

Third, because they can be a place where kids learn how family members, especially older relatives, dealt with tough challenges, family meals can contribute to kids seeing themselves as part of a broader multigenerational unit, that in turn promotes a sense of belonging and resilience in our kids.

Fourth, advocacy of family meals makes no ideological- or religious-based assumptions about what a family is. If one cares about stable family units, it is difficult to exclude single-parent families or families with gay or lesbian parents from the sense of belonging, security, stability and responsibility that can come from sharing food with their kids.

Finally, eating together can allow parents, not government, to reduce screen time for kids, a nonpartisan move that seems to be good for kids’ brain development, but also has the benefit of reducing exposure to potentially polarizing online messages.

All of these benefits touch on “family values,” a concept traditionally linked to conservatives but in fact consistent with the preferences of liberals, as reflected in liberal support for extended parental leave, which would expand parental opportunities to spend time with their kids.

So, what tools are available to encourage more family meals and discussion?

Within the family, parents can draw on a list of “Do you know…” questions, such as “Do you know where your grandparents grew up?” to get discussion started. Parents can also promote the practice of family members sharing stories from childhood, a tradition initiated by my older granddaughter that allows even the youngest to contribute.

Meanwhile, outside the family, healthcare providers, faced with high rates of obesity or emotional problems in kids, can be trained to teach parents to eat and talk with their kids more regularly. This could follow along the lines of how Park Rx encourages health or social service providers to “prescribe” ways of helping people to spend time in nature to improve their health.

On the policy side, we can push for better parental leave and more regular work schedules, an issue affecting frontline service workers whose employers often rely on last minute scheduling practices that negatively affect parents and child well-being and make family dinners hard to plan. Parents (and all citizens) can encourage local schools to design creative and locally based measures, such as specialized “meal kit” services that have been shown to make the family meal option an easier one.

What’s key here is that these options can promote depolarization in at least three ways: They preserve parental autonomy over what goes on within families; they aim to strengthen the bonds between parents and kids and they provide opportunities to think about the conditions that influence family bonds and, as a result, kids’ resilience.

None of these mechanisms is a function of partisan preferences. Looking ahead to 2024, let’s do everything we can to make family meals a more regular part of life again.

Rick Doner is Goodrich C. White professor (emeritus) in the Department of Political Science and adjunct professor in the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.