- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 26, 2002

Joanne and John Markey, and their four children, on most days are pulled in many different directions school, work, religious school and soccer, track or baseball practice but at dinnertime, they can all be found in one spot around the table. The Markeys, who live in Reston, have made the family dinner a priority.

"Everyone is busy," says Mrs. Markey, a library assistant with the Fairfax County school system, "but if we don't make it a point of having dinner together, then we won't see each other."

Are families such as the Markeys part of a dying breed? Or are more families despite the growing demands of commuting, careers and year-round sports making it a point to break bread together, no matter what?

It depends on whom you ask. The ongoing Harvard Nurses Study estimates that less than half of children ages 9 to 14 eat with their families every night, but several others including a Gallup poll and one conducted by National Family Opinion Research say the family dinner is alive and well in about 70 percent of homes.

What has changed is the way time-crunched families are cooking, what they are eating and what they are discussing.

In other words, the dinner hour may resemble "The Osbournes" more than it does "The Waltons."

"Not every meal is 'Father Knows Best,'" says Barbara Sacher, a mother of three from Herndon whose family eats together at 6:30 nightly. "There are times we sit down, and [husband] Seth is tired, and the kids are tired, and it is not a friendly meal, but we are all forced to learn to deal with it. They don't even have to eat if they are not hungry. It is the concept that we all sit down to dinner together."

What's in it for you?

Families who find the time to eat together are more likely to eat a more nutritious meal, says Keith Ayoob, a registered dietitian in New York City and a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association.

"Kids who eat meals prepared at home tend to eat meals that are higher in fruits and vegetables and lower in fat and calories," Mr. Ayoob says. "You can have a lot more control over what is in your food if you prepare it yourself."

Indeed, in 1999 the Harvard Nurses Study looked at the eating habits of 16,000 children ages 9 to 14 and found that 43 percent of them ate dinner with their family on most days. The study found that families who ate together were almost twice as likely to eat the recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables. The subjects were less likely to eat unhealthy amounts of snack foods, fried foods and red meat. The study also found that the children who ate family meals were more likely to eat healthfully during other meals, as well.

Eating as a family gives children an opportunity to learn about healthy eating from their best role models their parents.

"If you microwave your meals and are eating by yourself, you are missing out on a chance to model behavior," says Sheah Rarback, a Miami dietitian and spokeswoman for the ADA. "A child may not want to eat broccoli, but if he sees his mom or dad eating it enough, he may want to try it."

Eating together provides important social benefits, as well, says Michele Borba, author of "Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing."

"Kids do not see time spent with families as an intrusion," says Ms. Borba, an education consultant and the mother of three boys. "I have asked children what they want from their parents, and the number one thing they say is 'more time.'"

Eating as a family could impact how teens deal with school, stress and other social situations.

A 1997 study presented at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting looked at 527 teen-agers. The study determined that the well-adjusted teens ones who were less likely to do drugs, less likely to be depressed and more likely to be motivated in school were the ones who ate with their families at least five times a week. The nonadjusted children ate with their families about three times a week.

Psychologists Blake Sperry Bowden and Jennie Ziesz, the study's authors, said eating together often has an impact in dealing with the pressures of adolescence, but they were unable to pinpoint exactly why.

Mrs. Sacher says dinnertime is when she finds out what goes on during the hours her children Elana, 8, Sara, 6, and Max, 3 are out at school or various activities.

"The kids will leak things out during dinner," she says. "I will say, 'Tell me one thing about your day,' and they will leak something that happened. It gives all three kids a chance to hear about school or conflicts, and how they can be resolved."

Those kinds of discussions are important lessons in ethics, Ms. Borba says.

"You get some real benefits in learning common courtesy such as, 'Please pass the potatoes,'" she says, "but mealtime is also a great time to learn moral intelligence."

Just listening to what another family member is saying teaches empathy, Ms. Borba says.

"Active listening is what stops cruelty," she says. "You can't be respectful unless you listen and are open and tolerant. Talking about conflict can have an impact on a child's conscience when you discuss right from wrong. And when the atmosphere is relaxed, such as the dinner hour, with no other expectation than let's have nice manners and eat, you can really sit and talk and hear where kids are going."

Troy Sponaugle, the Falls Church father of an 18-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, says mealtime may be the only time to get teens talking.

"With teen-agers, sometimes you don't get any communication," he says, "but dinnertime is when they are relaxed in a lot of cases."

Jackie Sponaugle, Mr. Sponaugle's wife, says eating dinner together is "probably one of the more important things we do for ourselves." The Sponaugles work dinner in nightly around the extensive baseball schedules of their son, Troy, and soccer schedule of daughter, Kaile.

"We all lead such busy lives. Who doesn't?" Mrs. Sponaugle says. "But the best reason is, for us, eating together creates a snowball effect. When we eat together, we see that we like to spend more time together. I think our children learn other things at meals, such as what is happening in the world today. As a result, I think we have given them a nice value system. They can talk about what is happening at school, and nothing is really ever a surprise."

Making time

When families say they don't ever have the time to eat together, perhaps it is time to look at why that is, says Dr. Elisabeth Guthrie, a child psychiatrist in Valhalla, N.Y., and co-author of the book "The Trouble With Perfect: How Parents Can Avoid the Overachievement Trap and Still Raise Successful Children."

"I don't think eating together is a priority for many families," Dr. Guthrie says. "We have put priority on that time as more parents work, and we have overscheduled our children so much. It is so ironic; we will spend money on software that teaches language, yet we don't have the time to speak to one another anymore."

Families that would like to reprioritize can do so by looking at their schedules and seeing a few spots where meals could fit in.

"It doesn't have to be every night," she says, "but don't write off the significance of doing it on certain nights. Routine is the glue that sticks families together."

If it seems impossible to get the whole family together, then make your own routines, Dr. Guthrie says.

Nina Sands, a Reston woman who works full time at a political consulting firm, usually cooks dinner for her daughters, ages 8 and 6. She talks about the day with them while they eat but usually sits down to dinner later, when her husband gets home.

Mrs. Sands' husband, Randy, owns his own business and often has to meet with potential clients well into the dinner hour.

"We eat nutritiously, just not all together, Mrs. Sands says. "If we all ate together during the week, the kids wouldn't be in bed until 11 p.m."

The Sands' family dinners usually wait until the weekends, where they all have more time and often go to restaurants together.

The Markey family tries to eat together during the week, but not always on the weekends. With four children the oldest of whom is now away at college Mrs. Markey says she was able to prioritize family dinners by limiting the number of activities each child could participate in at one time.

"Everyone could do two at a time," she says. "Which usually meant religious school and one sports activity. I didn't want to be shoving a Subway sandwich down their throats on the way to baseball practice. The point is we eat together so we can share our day. We have a close family, and I think that is one of the reasons why."

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